Saturday, 17 December 2011

Death Mask

In response to several requests, this is the text of the presentation on Persephone which Alkistis gave at the Day of the Dead event in Glastonbury. We publish it now to mark the darkening into Solstice and Saturnalia.  

Death, Wildflowers and Blood Mysteries

Descent, and the Sacred Way: Iera Odos

Let us begin with a journey, let us begin by taking the road that will lead us to the land of the Dead, where we will come face to face with the goddess of the Underworld herself. 

The goddess of Death, who as Queen of Death is called Persephone, Persephassa, Persephatta …, yet when we first meet her is simply Kore, the maiden. It is also, on one level, an autoportrait – for death, and the dead, are personal.

I dedicate this talk to my dead, to my brother, my grandparents, Santa Teresa, and my friend Glenn, for they are the umbilical cord which, like Ariadne’s thread, returns me to the realm of the Dead where I may solve the enigma of my existence.

In the Greek myth, it is Alkistis the wife of Admetus, who sacrifices her life to save that of her husband – and in most accounts is returned to the land of the living by the hero Heracles. Her descent follows that of Persephone, and it is the pity of that implacable goddess that releases Alkistis from Hades.  And I found it curious that while I was living in Greece, the house keeper, Ekaterina, called me Kore or its diminutive koritz – the girl – perhaps I was not quite human for her, a stranger, incomplete and without experience. 

It seems then that I am destined to talk about Persephone and the descent, a voyage which fascinates me. And whilst I was initially intrigued by the myth as a psychological metaphor for cycles of depression and creativity, through repeated initiations in this cold fire, my understanding has matured and become one with my blood and bones. There is much more to it than a psychological reading will release, and Persephone herself is a recondite figure fraught with complexity and ambiguity.
So first, we must go down as the Kore once did, we must take the road to Hades.

This is the sacred way, the iera odos, the umbilical cord that is the road that the soul of the dead travels to return to the womb. The umbilical imagery is deliberate, as we shall see, when looking at the blood mysteries.

The sacred way is both an extension of the terrestrial road, and a reiteration of the initiatory path with its many bifurcations and crossroads, on which the initiand steps. The Orphic gold tablets tell the initiate that:

…once you have drunk you too will go along the sacred way by which the other mystoi and bakhhoi advance glorious, and afterwards you will reign with the other heroes.

This is also the way of wisdom travelled by Parmenides in the proemium to his poem: 

The mares that carry me as far as longing can reach
Rode on, once they had come and fetched me onto the legendary
Road of the divinity that carries the man who knows
Through the vast and dark unknown.

Greek folklore and tradition has preserved the importance of the road in its mourning and funerary rituals. The road is itself symbolic of Death, (which is seen as a mutable state, unfixed, disordered, and marked by movement). Ghosts were often encountered on roads or at a crossroads; furthermore, there is a direct parallel between the traveller as messenger and the role of the dead, who function as intermediaries between their living kin and the distant ancestors. They are bringers of news, they deliver dream oracles and messages from beyond the grave.

And because this road has reality in both the material and immaterial worlds, it breaches the divide that would otherwise exile the dead in banishing them from their family or community; the journey along the road of the Dead is one that connects the familiar to the mythic. 

So pervasive is the presence of the road that even the spoken and sung laments of the women’s mourning rituals echo it, effectively incanting the journey that the deceased is to make. Songs suffused with imagery that recalls journeys and the physical and emotional experience of travelling. For instance the description of being out of breath has the double meaning of dying, of losing one’s soul for the Greek word psyche means both breath and soul. 

And it is meaningful that the shaman or psychopomp is always a singer or plays the pipes, for (s)he is a master of breath and flight who by virtue of walking the talk, that is, knowing the ways, leads the dead, and engages in diplomacy.

Thus the road is the way of the shaman and the initiate (mystes), it is the sacred way, the mystic way. What to an uninitiated person is exile and separation, is to one who has been initiated an ecstatic liberation, and leads to union with the divinity. The road of souls is a procession of the dead, of psychopomp and shaman, a masque of bacchants and mænads. And it is a road we have largely forgotten how to travel.

The road brings us to the Asphodel meadow where the dead, quenched on the waters of Lethe, roam like shadows. Here the dead remain, never to pass onwards to judgement, for these are the uniniated, the unheroic and the unlucky. 

And it is a place like this – only in the world of light – where we encounter for the first time the maiden Kore.

Wild flowers

The Kore is gathering wildflowers with her companions – the full-breasted daughters of Okeanos – in a meadow. Some accounts say the Nysa plain, sacred to Dionysos, was the location; in the Sicilian telling of the myth, it is the plain of Enna where the abduction took place, its astonishing lushness evoked by Ovid in Metamorphoses:
Here flowers always bloom, winter never falls,
Here eternal spring smiles.

Meadows were liminal sites, places of ambivalence, danger and encounter. The Greek word used by the poet is leimon – which means a verdant or moist meadow, but is also used to denote the female sexual organs. The flowers are naturally emblematic of a sexual blossoming, and the meadow is the archetypical place of abduction and seduction. We may remember Odysseus, who came to Calypso’s cave in the extreme West – the womb or vulva of the sea; her abode was one of soft and flowering meadows, at once erotic and macabre. Even her name is from the Greek kalyptō – to hide or conceal.

Or, the cloven meadow of Aphrodite – in the words of Empedocles – who identified the love goddess with Eros himself, through whom alone can the path to knowledge be attained. The eroto-gnostic implications are apparent. 

Allusions to the shedding of hymenal blood in the Hymn to Demeter, the virgin sacrificed to the Lord of Death, may be missed in translation but to a native initiate the words and images would have had deeper, chthonic, levels of interpretation.

The language used to describe the Kore identifies her explicitly with the wild flowers she is gathering: she is the blossom itself, fertile and blooming (thaleren), she has a flowers beauty (kalikopidi), is a sweet shoot (glykeron thalos), coming herself from the earth in spring time, she is called a great wonder (mega thauma) just as the narcissus is wonderful to see and the flowers she is picking are a wonder to see (thaumaston/thauma idesthai).

Of the flowers gathered by the Kore, all have aphrodisiac or medicinal properties and may well have formed elements of a pre-grain diet, whether by virtue of their fruit (rose, rhodon) or bulbs (krokos, hyacinthos, narkissos) or shoots. And there is evidence that Kore is a Hellenised version of an earlier Great Goddess whose origins lie in the pre-agrarian stage of human development. One can liken her to Cybele or Demeter’s own mother Rhea, archaic goddesses of the hunt, of the wild uncultivated mountains. 

Interestingly, and more pertinent to the present context – which is erotic as opposed to nutritive – these blood-generated plants are born from youths whose sexual allure is outside the confines of  marriage and is often counter to the strictly heterosexual procreative social norm: Hyacinthos and Krokos die in the midst of homoerotic play with the gods Apollo and Hermes, Narcissus is locked in auto-erotic obsession; Attis, in a mad frenzy, castrates himself  beneath a pine tree just as he is about to marry – from his life blood spring violets; and Adonis, the fragile blood red anemone, fated never to be a wedded consort of Aphrodite, is gored to death by the boar. 

These flowers are wild, uncultivated and we can deduce that their origin myths point to pre-agrarian cultures. Hence we have a pre-agrarian maiden, who has primacy over her ‘mother’ Demeter. I would also propose that Kore is herself, by being likened to the wild flowers descriptively, expressive of a liminal or dangerous state of sexual awakening – unsocialised, unknown, unfamiliar. Let us not forget that eros and thanatos were fatally entwined in Greek myth, and that the untamed maiden was herself a bringer of death.

All die at the height of their eroto-magical potential, their blood infused with the seminal potency of youth, giving them the power to regenerate and transform. Though they are mortal in life, through death they attain that immortality which is proper to vegetation. And the god of vegetation, the god of indestructible and endlessly renewing life, is Dionysos.
All these flowers Persephone gathers, until she picks the fateful narcissus: 

… a marvellous, radiant flower. It was a thing of awe whether for deathless gods or mortal men to see: from its root grew a hundred blooms and it smelled most sweetly, so that all wide heaven above and the whole earth and the sea’s salt swell laughed for joy.

The Hymn even calls it a snare laid for her, and as she reaches to pluck it:

… the earth, full of roads leading every which way, opened up under her. [...] There it was that the Lord who receives many guests made his lunge. He was riding on a chariot drawn by immortal horses. The son of Kronos. The one known by many names. He seized her against her will, put her on his golden chariot, and drove away as she wept.

Who is Hades, the unseen, the one known by many names, who makes his dramatic entrance at this heightened moment of the Kore’s sexual awakening and self-awareness? It is of interest, especially in the context of the Mysteries, to read the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, who wrote:

Hades and Dionysus, for whom they rave in bacchic frenzy, are one.

This is an esoteric understanding, a paradox which stresses a concealed truth. There is little in the archæological or literary evidence to suggest that the ancient Greeks accepted this identification, but it is telling that the mysteries of Dionysos were inextricably connected with the Underworld and the salvation of the soul after bodily death. Before the soul comes into the presence of Persephone it must have been liberated first by Dionysos, as the Orphic gold tablets instruct:

Tell Persephone that Bacchios himself has released you. 

Both are referred to as sotir, saviour, in the gold tablets. The night revels of the bacchantes find a parallel in the tradition of conducting funerals at night, so that the soul of the deceased would be buried, and hence released, with the dawn. 

There are many suggestive clues to this identification, even in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter itself, when Demeter is offered wine by her hostess, whilst grieving for her lost daughter:

Then Metaneira offered her a cup, having filled it with honey-sweet wine. But she refused, saying that it was divinely ordained that she not drink red wine.

In other words she cannot accept the gift of her daughter’s ravisher: Dionysos. 

Blood Mysteries: Ieros Gamos

What then can we learn of the Kore, whose sexual awakening/initiation was marked by her recognition of her divine lover, and precipitated by her reaching for the narcissus? She was not always Demeter’s daughter. In Homer the spheres of the two goddesses never touch, and it is Persephone who is the older and more powerful of the two. Neither is there mention of Persephone’s abduction; in the Illiad and the Odyssey, Persephone is an Underworld figure, whose companion is sometimes called Zeus Katachthonios, sometimes Hades. Only later, in Hesiod’s Theogony, a summary of the Hymn’s story is given for the first time: Persephone, the daughter of Demeter and Zeus, is abducted by Hades.

Following her abduction, and plunged into a state of separation, of individuation and dawning self-awareness, Persephone takes one more irrevocable step. From Hades she receives the pomegranate seed which will bind her to the Underworld. The Hymn tells us she is deceived by Hades, and she herself later protests to Demeter:

...but he secretly put in my mouth sweet food, a pomegranate seed, and forced me to taste against my will.

I fear the Kore doth protest too much… it is as if she cannot, to her mother, admit that the subterranean desire that compelled her was her own.

There is an alternative form of the myth in which Persephone does not return. Virgil in Georgics tells us that: Prosperpine (did) not heed her mother’s voice entreating to return. Virgil is not innovating; the story is told elsewhere and seems to derive from an earlier poem. An even more radical account is that found in Lokri in Sicily, where there is no trace of Demeter in the myth, and Kore is simply the maiden before her abduction, rather than the daughter of Demeter

In the Orphic gold tablets, she is referred to as the subterranean Queen, mother of the Erinyes, she is called Nestis – a cult title that bears the dual meaning of fasting and water, and is the divine name given by Empedocles to the root element water: And Nestis, moistening mortal springs with her tears.
Her association with water and moisture is another connection she shares with Dionysos. 

Another epithet, Brimo (the strong one), she shares with Hecate, Zeus and Dionysos. Evidently she is no ordinary maiden.

By way of her abduction by Hades, her katabasis, she has become Queen of Death, though never is she described as his wife but as his bedmate (akoitis/parakoitis). The language of matrimony is absent and, striking in contrast to the imagery of the flowery meadow, their union is childless.

Here we are in the presence of the paradox of the goddess of Life and Death.

The honey-sweet pomegranate seed, a fruit which is so redolent of blood with its ruby juice is a fitting symbol for menstruation and fertility, yet the Greeks knew pomegranate as a birth control agent since before the archaic period. Its use and its association with the Love goddess is even older in West Asia, being depicted on cult objects, jewellery and figures of both Inanna-Ishtar Astarte and Aphrodite. 

The knowledge and art of pharmakeia, the use of drugs to control birth and fertility, the power over life and death, marks Persephone as a manifestation of the Great Goddess.  

The pomegranate is also the symbol of the sexual union between Persephone and Hades – the hieros gamos – the sacred mystery which lies buried at the heart of the Hymn to Demeter and the myth of Kore’s descent to the the Underworld. This would seem an unlikely context for such a rite, and as Jake Stratton-Kent observes in Geosophia:

This sexual union in death is largely absent from myth for an excellent reason, it is a Mystery. Although a secret of the Mystery religions, which it was forbidden to reveal, it is nevertheless not concealed entirely.

We cannot separate sex and death, the tomb is the womb where life is reborn. This is not simply a modern reading, as we would expect from a Bataille. Emily Vermeule writes:

It was a formal principle of Greek myth and literature that Love and Death are two aspects of the same power.

Eros and Thanatos cannot be separated.

Underlining this is the presence of a massive necropolis on the Enna plain, which is where Kore was taken down. Even today this region is known as the ombelico of Sicily, that is, the navel. The use of the term omphalos/navel for a place of worship derives from the ancient East, where it signified a bond between heaven and earth. A bond between the world above and the world below. This is made more dramatic when we realise that navel is a synonym for womb. And what is particularly striking about Enna is that people were being buried here in the necropolis since the late Paleolithic, explicitly to be reborn. As Penelope Shuttle wisely notes: The cults of the dead are the cults of the unborn.

Kore-Persephone may be the self-same silent goddess of Life and Death always worshipped in Sicily, and who is still worshipped there behind her Catholic mask as the (Black)Virgin. There are ancient cult images of her, called maschere or protomes, found at Lokri in Sicily, having an extreme archaistic style – some appear like death masks, cold withdrawn and with broken eyes, and others with an eerie archaic beauty, animated by an ineffably tender smile. Such images are profoundly evocative of the nature of the maiden.

But in Sicily and Magna Graecia a curious synthesis of two goddesses also takes place. Persephone is endowed with the attributes of Aphrodite, and identified explicitly with her, both iconographically, textually and in cult. These goddesses, who appear so far apart from each other, are almost as one in the Mysteries, with images of Persephone holding a pomegranate and lily with a dove in her lap or winged Eros between her breasts. There is much to pursue here. The identification of Persephone and Aphrodite is a central motif in my own magical Work, and functions as a camera obscura illuminating the mysteries of BABALON, a title of the goddess who Herself is in one sense the fusion of Inanna-Ishtar with Ereshkigal.
To conclude this brief portrait of Persephone, a complex and fascinating Goddess, who gives life to the living and liberates the dead, a goddess in whom death and the erotic are entwined, I want to return by the same route we took when we descended in search of her. For it is this sacred way, the path of souls, of blood and bones, that we open when we honour our dead. Persephone is the divine paradox that unites the mythic with the personal, and whose enigmatic mask – if we are wise, initiated, bold or lucky – will greet our own death mask with a smile.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Queen of the Fig Tree in Hell

The fine bound Figueiro do Inferno edition of Pomba Gira and the Quimbanda of Mbumba Nzila has arrived. The speckled crimson leather looks very serpentine and the boards and slipcase are mesmeric in shot silk which shift from a dusky fig to wine as the light catches them. Inside a double gold marble swirls with the energy that is so characteristic of the Pomba Giras.

Our blessings to Pomba Gira, and our thanks to Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold and the aristry of our binders who have done her this great service.

We might have a copy or two of the fine edition left, drop us an email if you want to be added to the waiting list.

The fine edition joins the moire silk and letterpress Salve Regina edition of 769 copies which is still available here:

We also present her in Bibliotheque Rouge paperback and digital Maria editions so that she can offer her solace to all who seek her aid.

Pomba Gira and the Quimbanda of Mbumba Nzila is getting great reviews from devotees and those in the West who have been drawn to her mysteries and the vibrant lines of Brazilian witchcraft.

Sarava Pomba Gira!