Saturday, 28 March 2015

Restoring our Cultural Memory; Dedicated to Isis


Isis and Madonna

Mythology is a form of cultural memory condensed into stories. Often in the telling, the historical realities of the people who once told them are forgotten, and all that remains are the characters and their stories. Political and social context has long gone, leaving only vestigial clues of how it was for the real people living once upon a time.

The myths of the ancient world have been told and re-told through the centuries, yet each new generation tells the story in a way that reflects the concerns of its own time period. For the longest time, each culture’s story-tellers have more often than not been men. So usually the place and the power that women once held in those long ago times is omitted or distorted by the current male gatekeepers. Patriarchal propaganda requires crucial silences and huge gaps in our cultural memory.

There is a constant plundering of old stories and a re-telling of them.

These days, Walt Disney is a good example of a master of distortion who steals fairy tales to reinforce the sex-role stereotyping of the modern woman.

Another ghastly example is the TV series of Heracles conjured up by adolescent Los Angeles script-writers who bolster a skewed version of masculinity and misogyny.

The classic European mythology is the repository of much wisdom that once in the West was learned as a matter of course by most literate people. However, during the 20th century, the universities and education systems began to stop teaching the Classics, as being irrelevant to the marketplace of capitalism.

Gradually our mythology then became colonised by the newly-formed science of Psychology under Carl Jung
  (later Joseph Campbell, Bruno Bettelheim and many  others) who re-told the old stories to highlight its theories of psycho-therapy.

Then in the late 20th century, feminists placed these old stories into an historical and political context of patriarchy and used them to empower women.

So far the 21st century has left classic mythology behind in a world that has forgotten its roots and its past, unless that past can be conveniently cut off from its roots and pasted together for superficial propaganda and entertainment purposes.

As a feminist I do believe that mythology allows us ways to re-envisage the way women were – and could be - conceptualised. I think taking a journey into our deep past can enrich our own beliefs and actions now.

The High Priestess

Aura-Soma Tarot. Pamela Matthews
In order to explore mythology in this way, I shall use one tarot card that holds an enormous amount of lore within its cardboard frame.

My intention is to restore some of our shared cultural memory in order to enhance our concept of power. Power is often narrowly conceptualised into dominance, hierarchical and authoritarian dynamics. Race, class, gender are all means of expressing power over another as is of course the assumption of human superiority over ‘the natural’ -  our planet earth and all its creatures. We envisage power as force, usually as colonial or imperial and always male dominated.
Any form of women’s leadership – political, intellectual or spiritual - has been and still is - stigmatized in our present cultural paradigms.

I shall pursue a mythology around women’s leadership in the form of a priestess, making a radical overhaul of our notions about an image entitled The Papess or The High Priestess.
Radical is a word that originated at the same time as tarot – it is a late 14th century word that meant in the medieval philosophical sense “having roots”. So a radical notion is one that “goes to the origin” of an issue and follows upwards to the surface manifestations.
Songs For Journey Home Tarot. Dwariko von Sommaruga

I am not writing for tarot buffs only. I am using this particular image to advance ideas and the associations they may bring, as a conduit for viewing the roles and work of modern wo/men.

High Priestess Series (Part 2)

This particular Tarot card has long fascinated me. I have posited in my last post – and many times before – that this card is the representation of my role as a tarot reader and astrologer.
But in continuing this series exploring the ideas around the mysteries inherent in this card, I intend in this post, to expand its mythology, then later, its place in Christianity’s mythology and history (part 3).
Onto its relationship with witches and fairy tales especially to the Snow White story (part 4), and lastly concluding with a revisiting of the Oracle of Delphi and its Priestesses who opened the series (part 5).

All these words and only one picture.
Abandon preconceptions all who enter her…..

Hidden in Full View

So for newcomers to the tarot it may be a surprise to learn that sure it’s a deck of playing cards, and has been used for gambling, playing and fortune-telling since its arrival in Northern Europe 600 years ago. However its artwork has a lineage that is deeply embedded in Western thinking from long before Christianity’s world view that forms so much of our conceptual realities today.

Tarot’s original 15th century images were inherently part of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance culture, when most people were illiterate (in writing) but visually and symbolically  literate in ways that surpass our modern understandings.

Throughout their useage, Tarot images have remained laden with symbol and coded with hidden information including geometrical and numerical allusions, alchemical and neo-platonic ideas, biblical and mythological associations. Later centuries have added their own cartomantic meanings as well as insights from psychology.

In short, the tarot cards despite being maligned and dismissed in mainstream academic discourse, do indeed embed a huge part of our Western cultural heritage within their artwork. This artwork has only recently been taken seriously in the disciplines of history and art- history, because the medium was a deck of playing cards. The double whammy of being a lowly card deck as well as being associated with fortune-telling, has meant tarot has largely been discounted and discarded from academic scholarship. That scholarship has of course tended to be sexist and class-ridden in its concerns over the centuries.

One of the interesting things about tarot cards is that although the art changes with each artist and her/his century and locale, the themes remain extremely consistent. The Fool remains the Fool despite changes in style, colour and often even title.

Hence Carl Jung a pioneer in the fledgling science of 20th century Psychology become fascinated with how they illustrated his ideas of ‘archetypes and “collective unconsciousness”.

Weather as Fate?

An archetype is considered to be a universal formative principle around which physical reality if formed.  Thus, just as a pattern for a particular tree exists in its seed (an acorn knows it is an oak), so a series of matrixes underlie that which is fundamental to the human psyche. The tarot’s Empress card for example is the Mother; the good mother the bad mother, the mother who nurtures and the mother who devours and destroys and of course Mother Earth.

A fortune-teller would say that the events in our lives develop around a myriad of patterns or themes. When reading the archetypes of tarot we can perceive the dynamic load of these energetic constellations that underlie visible reality.

I tend to think of the Major Arcana – a word that means Mysteries – as an image of the climate in which we are functioning. We can call it fate or the weather, but either way the Arcana is a constellation, an energetic system that displays the life pattern we are dealing with.

The Papess becomes The High Priestess

Dodal Tarot
The original High Priestess card was called the Papess or the Female Pope for 500 years until the first English deck of 1909 re-named her The High Priestess – a title she is more commonly known by today in the English-speaking world.

In the Marseilles tarots - used in Europe’s’ most popular card game for 300 years or more – the Papess was pictured as a substantial older woman sitting solid in her flesh. 

In the 20th century decks she becomes much more youthful rather like the Virgin Mary, a romanticised and idealised figure.

The Virgin and the Elder

In classical mythology, the idea of the three stages of woman – Virgin, Mother and Crone was represented by the Triple Goddess.

In the Tarot the Empress represents Woman in her fullness of physical and biological power – both Lover and Mother. The Empress is all about the roles we play that define us in relationship to – the husband, the lover, the child, the creative project or the Earth itself.

The High Priestess symbolises the other two parts of the Goddess – she is both Virgin and Crone.
Pre-menstrual and post-menopausal, she represents the idea of woman self-contained – the woman unto herself.
She is number 2 in the sequence of Majors and holds the idea of duality and polarity.
The High Priestess encompasses and holds the tension between youth and age, naivety and experience, future and past, prophecy and memory, potential and power.
She is the budding maidenhead of the virgin, hinting at the potential ripeness that lies behind the unbroken hymen.
However she is as well, the midwife of life and presides over death. She is the conduit between these realities.
She is the Mistress passing on the secrets to the Apprentice. She conducts the magic between grandparent and grandchild.
Nana Fern & Clara

She is the dialogue and tension between silence, non-verbal meditation and contemplation – and the gossiping, chattering story teller, Mother Goose, the old wives telling tales, the bawdy crone cackling.










The Moon Goddess
Alchemical Tarot. Robert Place

Marseilles-type Tarot
In the Marseilles deck, she wears a 3 tiered papal crown indicating she is a female pontiff. This tiara also can be seen in Gnostic manuscripts on Luna Regia – Queen Moon - who appears in the same dress and pose as the Tarot Papess sitting before a temple veil wearing the papal tiara decorated with a crescent Moon. The triple layers tell us that her power manifests in three worlds - in heaven, on earth and under the water. This iconography connects her with 3-faced Hecate as well as Hera Queen of the Gods who also wore this high cylindrical crown.

Her wimple in the Marseilles Deck is like two horns of a cow and suggests the traditional headdress of the Egyptian goddess Isis.

Waite-Smith Tarot 1909
In the 1909 deck, her headdress openly connects her to Isis. The crown of Isis signifies the Moon in all its three phases. In the centre is the Full Moon and its two horns are the waxing and waning cycles.
Her wimple in the Marseilles card is an open crescent that suggests a receptacle that both receives and preserves, whilst it penetrates to inner meaning. This shape evokes the crescent Moon, a body that reflects light and has long been seen to be a mirror of the divine.
Moon Goddess in her Lunar Boat

We must learn silence and mindfulness in order to become receptacles of insight and contained knowledge. A corporate Human Relations or Personnel worker who holds the secrets of the office, or upon whose shoulders everyone cries in private – is working with this idea.

Isis. Pamela Matthews
The Moon has its waxing and waning cycles – new, full and old. The Papess/Priestess wears the Moon on her head, suggesting that rhythm is a crowning principle of her mental activity. In traditional astrology, the Moon is the symbol of reason, as well as the power of memory and the wisdom of the past. A librarian, an archivist, a novelist, a genealogist, a scholar or historian all carry this archetype.

The Moon Goddess was said to have created time with all its cycles of creation - growth, decline and destruction. Ancient calendars were all based on the phases of the Moon and women’s menstrual cycle.
The prophet Isaiah denounced women of Zion wearing silver lunar amulets.
Wearing the Crescent moon was “visible worship” of the goddess in Rome.
The crescent Moon used in the iconography of Artemis/Diana and other goddesses including the Virgin Mary is said to be the ark or vessel of boat-like shape, symbol of fertility or the container of the germ of all life. The same arc carried gods such as the son of Isis – Osiris into death.

The Moon was thought to be the receptacle of souls between reincarnation, sheltering both the dead and the unborn. Today’s midwives, nurses, funeral and hospice workers are intimately linked with this idea. She holds the key to our ancestors’ experience that courses through our own veins.

The night-time’s silver Moon, mirror of the Sun’s light, links into dreaming, visions and prophecy. Here we find anyone who holds a mirror for another to search for hidden or unconscious meaning or help healing -  such as a psycho-therapist, ‘agony aunt’, dream-worker or lay healer; the psychics, mediums, visionaries and prophets.

The Moon’s constant cycle is also a symbol of inconstancy because of its waxing and waning in its monthly round. In the West’s cultural memory it has always held an equally powerful symbolic place to the golden sun. Both these luminaries constantly replace each other in the unending cycle of day and night, light and dark.

Selene Moon Goddess

All these associations with the Moon link this image to the Triple Goddess who is a fundamental life force in ancient Indo-European mythologies. She rules the Sky of our thinking, the Earth that grounds us in its gravity and the Sea of our feelings.
Artemis is the new phase of the Moon - the virgin huntress goddess who roams the Earth. She is intimately connected to non-human creatures of the earth. The dog –whisperer, the animal trainer, even a vet might be a High Priestess.

Selene is the Full Moon who is the Queen of Heaven (she holds the Tarot Card’s Empress).

Whina Cooper. An Elder of great mana
Hecate rules the dark phase of the Moon and the Underworld. She is the healer, the seer, the mentor, the holder of the tribe’s experience. She might be a grand- aunt, the oldest person on the job who holds the institutional memory, or the old lady next door.
Sometimes the Moon’s triple goddess was named Hebe, Hera and Hecate, sometimes Persephone, Demeter, Hecate.



Athene arising from father Zeus' head in Stuttgart
Another major self-sufficient goddess linked to the tarot’s Priestess is the virginal Athene. Like Metis her mother, and an early wife to Zeus, she was the fount of the King God’s wisdom. Zeus later ate his wife Metis (he devoured her wisdom and took her power in an efficient coup d’etat.) Mythology – the stories our culture tells – always effectively reflects the power landscape of political history as well as the psychology of gender, class and race.

As a Classical goddess Athene was said to have risen fully formed, and in armour, from her father’s head. There are vestiges in her story of the older triple goddess particularly as she carries the fearful head of Medusa – the Death Goddess in all her gruesome power – on her shield. If anyone looks in the mirror of this shield, they are turned to stone. The gorgon called up her older heritage of Athene the Destroyer for funerary statues were her “men turned into stone”.

A scarey Daddy's Girl in NZ Politics
We will meet this scarey part of the High Priestess later in her story, but meanwhile I draw your attention to the idea of her power being claimed by her father. Daddy’s girl (the likes of Margaret Thatcher and the myriads of such women who claim their power from The Emperor (the father) are also part of this mythology.

Actually before the Greeks claimed her, she came from North Africa and the Egyptians called her Isis Athene which meant “I have come from myself”.
The patriarchal Greeks however established Athene as their own, calling her the Virgin Goddess of civilisation and reason.

 She was a scrapper, fierce as well as intrinsically skillful and wise. She was goddess of Athens and worshipped as the Holy Virgin Athene Parthenia in the Parthenon – which was her “virgin-temple”.  Classic writers insisted on her virginity but there are several traditions that gave her consorts including Pan and Hephaestus. Sexual celibacy is not necessary as the idea of virginity symbolises the idea of self-containment, or her major relationship being with the “god”.

Parthenon in Athens

Athene is associated with patronage of the arts, oracles and wisdom traditions and in this guise she is attended by crow and owl (totems of the Crone/Death Goddess).
The spider is hers too- she is patron of weaving and spinning and all arts to do with thread. Those who sit and spin – or weave or patchwork or practice any textile art come under her supervision.

I find her an interesting Goddess to associate with The High Priestess for she rules education – she was said to have received the letters of the alphabet from Medusa (her elder). She governed right measure, focused judgment and discrimination. She resides in the resourceful, adaptive mind and gifts the ability to plan, conspire, cope and survive. How resoundingly we congratulate the men who achieve these virtues in our societies; how quiet we are about the women who go about their daily domestic tasks achieving Athene’s qualities modestly and without pay.

She rules women who seek and find success in their job and career. Because of this fact, Athene plays a most ambiguous role throughout western history.  But then of course any form of female intellectual and/or spiritual authority has always been strongly suspect and gives open season for misogyny. Our Prime Minister Helen Clark was a good example of this progressive figure much praised by women, but also much aligned by the boys’ club.

The list of so-called ‘feminine virtues of softness, gentleness, receptivity, nurturing are decidedly NOT present in Athene. There is a suggestion that there is something monstrous and unnatural about Athene’s reason and technological mind not to mention her focused, creative assertion when embodied in a female.

Often women who seek to find success in job or career, rather than being a mother risk being pathologised rather than congratulated.
Florence Nightingale ironically remarked once if she was “not a man or woman – am I a department?”

Today, women struggle to find jobs in the male- dominated IT job sector – Athene’s natural realm.
I think Athene is as subversive as a female Pope, because she helps us to transcend the facile equation of strength, courage and worldly wisdom with masculinity. Prometheus shaped the first human beings, but it was Athene who breathed soul into them.

Athene - Image and Energy by Ann Shearer.


Peacock complaining to Juno. Albert Pike
Like Athene, Hera was part of an older triple Goddess set. In her earlier aspect as triple goddess, she was Hebe, Hera, Hecate.

Hera was originally the Greek’s great triple Goddess of Heaven, Earth and Sky. In Classical times, she was raped by her brother, the new up and coming patriarch Zeus, and grudgingly had to share her domain with him. She was and still is depicted as the jealous nagging wife. Her familiar is the peacock for its eyes are said to symbolize the many stars in her Milky Way which she birthed by spouting milk across the heavens as she fed her baby, the hero Hera-cles (Herkules).
Hera also wore a high cylindrical crown such as the tiara of The Papess.


Juno the Roman version was formidable and every Roman woman embodied  a bit of her spirit – her own soul a ‘juno’ corresponding to the ‘genius’ of a man.  Roman women celebrated their birthdays by making a sacrifice to their juno and men would do the same to their ‘genius. Later patriarchal vocabulary dropped the word juno but retained genius thus depriving women of their souls.

Among her sacred symbols were the peacock, the cowrie shell and of course the lily, lotus – that universal yonic emblem. With her sacred lily Juno conceived the God Mars without any assistance from her consort Jupiter, and thus became the Blessed Virgin Juno. The three-lobed lily that used to represent her parthenogenetic power was inherited by the Virgin Mary who still retains it.

The Papess card’s title was changed by many card publishers to Juno (complete with her peacock)to avoid troubling the Christian Church with ideas of uppity women.

 The Three Fates

The Three Fates are very old representations of the triple goddess.
In ancient Greece they spun, measured and cut the mystical sometimes golden, sometimes red, thread of life.
Clotho the Virgin, the youngest was the Spinner – the spinster.
Lachesis was the Mother, and it was she who sustained and measured the thread. (She is the one I would attribute to the tarot’s Empress image).
Atropos was the crone who decided when to cut the thread of life.

The Norse Norns

Skuld is the youngest and it is she who cuts the thread when it comes to its end. Only she is wearing a veil – our future fate is hidden from vision. Skuld was important in divination for she holds our future. (Skuld is where we get the word ‘scold’ from and maybe ‘skulduggery’)
Verdandi conserves the thread and she represents the present (the Empresses job)
Urd spins and holds the Past. She  rules the Underworld – Hel is another goddess version.
Mother Holle in the fairy tales who lives in a well or shakes her quilt of feathers over the world creating snow is Urd.
Frau Holle. Brothers Grimm

In comparing the cultural differences between the Fates and the Norns  we see that both Virgin and Elder sisters are part of the mystery that our tarot image contains.

Veiled Skuld

The young woman can become as much a feared witch as the older woman.

The Salem Witch Trials are a horrible example of this stereotyping that breeds prejudice and fear of the young and beautiful as much as of the older woman. Women-hating is part of this tarot image’s long history.


Hekate, Goddess of the Crossroads

Hecate was Queen of the dead to the ancient Greeks but was not invisible like her consort Hades. You would meet her where the roads meet. She ruled rites of magic and divination and consultation with the dead.
She is also derived from the Egyptian midwife/goddess Heket who had a frog totem which was a symbol of the foetus. In her midwife form she delivered the Sun every morning.
Hecate became queen of the witches in the Middle Ages, in her hag form.
The Hag as Death Goddess generally has her face veiled to imply nobody can know the manner of their death.

In northern Europe a hag was indeed a death goddess whose priestesses butchered for her sacred cauldron and read the entrails. Haggis is a word that once meant - Hag’s dish made from internal organs.
In the 16thC Hag meant a fairy or Moon Priestess.
In Shakespeare ‘hagged’ means bewitched.
The word  ‘haggard’ comes from hawk, harpy and intractable woman.
Hag originally meant ‘holy woman’
Hagiology means a study of holy matters.
Indeed the word Hag has declined in meaning; the culprit is not hard to find - yes it’s that old devil called patriarchy at work once more.

Hags during the Middle Ages and beyond were inextricably linked with the Witch from which the words wicked, wicker and willow originate – witches were believed to be shape shifters. To be a witch was a dangerous role to play when misogyny ran wild in the form of Church and State. To be associated with the dark aspect of the old (ugly) Hag Goddess meant you were full of valuable ancient knowledge, such as herbs and poison but also with death and fear.

Medieval Wise Woman/Witch

An added association with the classical Fates and the Norns of Northern was the Christian-led  death-dealing frenzy of witch burning, that manifested in Europe and lasted for centuries.

Shakespeare calls on this fear of old, independent and powerful women who deal in prophecy and death in his play MacBeth. His witches were named the Weird Sisters.

The 3 Weird Sisters

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Whina Cooper raising fire with her tribe

To be continued.... Isis is coming.

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