INTRODUCTION TO PART II:
Transformation and transmutation are essential aspects of the Goddesses of creation and celebration. For nothing is created anew: We and all of existence are composed of elements of previous life forms which have been rearranged and reordered to create new entities. Plants feed on sunlight, the nutrients of the decomposing earth and the carbon dioxide we exhale. We and other animals feed on the plants, and some animals eat other animals. Our bodies are made to decompose and create food for other life. This never-ending process is part of the continuous cycle of birth, death and rebirth that we call life. When I speak of rebirth I do not imply a specific theory of reincarnation. However, we need only look at the cycles of Nature to see that physical substances die to feed new life. Similarly, on a psychic or psychological level, we must let go of the old to create room for the new.
By “death” I do not mean simply death of the physical body. We also experience the “little deaths” of our transformations of identity, behavior patterns, home, relationships, jobs. I often use this term to describe such transitions because in accepting physical death, we can learn to benefit from transformation on all levels. Spiritual practices offer the possibility of letting old parts of ourselves die, that there may be room for new growth. Once we have learned to healthfully express our egos, we can move beyond them and feel ourselves as part of the larger life force.
I speak here of natural death, not the unnatural mass extinction that we have set in motion on the planet at this time. Natural extinctions have occurred on Earth roughly every twenty-six million years. We should have another twelve million years left of this cycle, if we do not destroy our world prematurely. Accepting our individual mortality is an important part of allowing our planet to fulfill her natural cycle. Ironically, our own fear of death and loss of possessions may lead us to destroy ourselves in a nuclear war, as we project our fears onto the “other” or “enemy.” Our lack of spiritual foundation and our anxiety about material security lead us to environmental catastrophe as we drain the Earth of her resources. In addition, our fear of psychic death keeps us from acknowledging transitions in our lives or extra-rational forms of consciousness, such as the wisdom of ritual, meditation, trance and dreams.
In Euro-Western culture, which does not generally recognize or value the great interrelatedness of the web of life, and which primarily views people in terms of personal identity or material reality, transformation can be a terrifying process. We resist, dread or ignore all kinds of change, whether they be life transitions, altered states of consciousness, loss or death. We forget that, as surely as spring follows winter, new life grows out of the old. The process of letting go and emptying is essential for renewal.
Transformation is an essential part of our existence. When we die, life goes on; our individual selves do not. Many people of primal cultures, like those of the Goddesses presented in this book, who live closer to the cycles of our planet, know that death is not the opposite of life, but a gateway, just as birth is. In the words of a Pueblo Indian, “Death is a natural and necessary phenomenon, for if nobody died there would soon be no room left in the world.” Similarly, on a psychic level, to whom should we offer those outdated, limited parts of ourselves? Surely not to a Goddess of fertility and abundance who would cause them to proliferate, but to a Goddess like Kali or Coatlique who has the capacity to consume that which no longer bears fruit and to transmute it into
Physical death is one of the great mysteries of life, as great a miracle as birth and sexuality. When we die, our vastly complex bodies disintegrate and “we” seem to disappear. Who are we? Where do we come from? Where do we go? These are questions which challenge many of us. At both birth and death, we enter what some Native Americans call the Great Mysterious. We cannot know our future in either transition, but we can learn to trust the process.
In my research, I have found that all Goddesses of Death, taken in their original or cultural context, are also Goddesses of Rebirth, for the two concepts are inseparable for those who understand the laws of Nature. It has been frequently noted that the death throes are similar to those of birthing. Also, women have been the primary caregivers for the dying, who are often held as a child would be. In myth and art throughout the world, Goddesses teach the mysteries of death and rebirth and receive the dead back to their breasts or into their wombs. Death and birth images are often juxtaposed, for both are aspects of the all-encompassing Mother of Life. Death is not a final ending, but a return to the Mother, another cycle in the spiral of life, a doorway to another part of existence.
This concept is difficult to comprehend in our dualistic world, which has isolated and resisted the death aspect. Furthermore, in the suppression of women the patriarchy has relegated death and all that it deems fearsome (including the power of women) to what are known as the Dark Goddesses. Yet these Goddesses were once part of the whole, the Great Goddess, who encompasses all aspects of life. It is this split which drives us to madness and causes us to destroy ourselves and our world. We are caught in a self-defeating struggle against the very nature of life itself.
Rites of passage often imitate the processes of death and birth, for they are created to help facilitate change from one form, physical or psychic, to another. Thus initiates from around the world are known as “the twice-born.” Most of us do not have ceremonies or support for changes in our lives or for confronting death. We can carry our fear and sorrow everywhere we go, until we ourselves die. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, pioneer in working with death and dying, focuses on helping people complete their “unfinished business” concerning the deaths in their lives.
It is the same with the little deaths: We hold onto relationships, past opportunities, possessions and patterns of thinking and acting even when their vitality or appropriateness are long past. We are like deciduous trees clinging to our leaves, denying ourselves the opportunity for compost for new growth. In order to grow we must allow transformation. In order to be reborn, we must allow death.
The Goddesses of Transformation can help us reclaim the sacred dimensions of trance, meditation and creativity. To employ such extra-rational parts of our consciousness, we must temporarily expand beyond our egos and exclusively rational thought. On both physical and psychological levels, we must know death before we can lead others to life. Once we have gained a depth of understanding from this intuitive perspective, we can call in our rational faculties to implement our inspiration. In this way we function with all our resources—including our whole brains and souls united with our minds and hearts.
The Goddesses of Trance in this section help us remember our heritage of larger consciousness, embodying for us a diversity of practices: silent meditation, ritual, chanting, dreams, dance and shamanic journeying. Trance may also be a rehearsal for death, a way to practice letting go of our egos in preparation for the physical passage.
Women might have easier access to what we call altered states of consciousness, while balancing them with a practical outlook. Perhaps male initiation rites are often emphasized more than women’s because men do not experience the same intense transformations that are a natural part of women’s lives. In fact, many initiation rites specifically imitate women’s bleeding and birthing. Perhaps the dramatic physical changes of menstruation, pregnancy, multiple orgasms, nursing and menopause are women’s training for moving in and out of different states of consciousness.
We have much to learn from the Goddesses of Transformation and from peoples who ceremonially honor the cycles of life’s transitions. As demonstrated in the stories of Persephone, Inanna, and the Dzonokwa, it is only by going into the underworld of our psyches that we can discover and bring back the jewels of wisdom hidden there. Remembering the unity of birth, death and rebirth can help us heal our fears and the destructive tendencies which result from those fears. We can then truly rediscover how to live in more peace and harmony on this planet, as those honoring the Goddesses of Transformation have done for millennia.
She changes everything She touches and Everything She touches, changes.
—KORE, A Chant by Starhawk
It’s the blood of the ancients that runs through our veins
And the forms pass, but the circle of life remains.
—“BLOOD OF THE ANCIENTS,”
Lyrics by Ellen Klaver
Music by Charlie Murphy