I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination. – John Keats
The Virgin returns and the Golden Age begins anew. – Virgil
Be joyful even though you’ve considered all the facts. – Wendell Berry
Now we are called to remember immensely ancient things that we have never personally known – to remember what the land itself knows, that which has been concealed from us by our own mythologies, and those forgotten imaginal beings on the other side of the veil. As Martin Shaw writes,
Maybe this is how we seem to the gods now: that one day one of them gently reached over and turned down the volume…Maybe it’s not that we can’t hear the gods but that they can’t hear us.
We have the opportunity to remember who we are, and how our ancestors remembered, through art and ritual. Our task is unique: inviting something new, yet familiar, to re-enter the soul of the world.
Re-membering requires the re-emergence of cultural forms to counter our amnesia (“against Mnemosyne”), our forgetting that we have forgotten so much. Once these forms have arisen to create the containers – the sense that it is finally safe enough to feel and grieve what has been lost – then all the marginalized and split-off aspects of psyche and society may well return. Welcomed back rather than merely tolerated, the old gods may be more helpful than vengeful, appearing as guides rather than (as Jung wrote) as diseases.
As chronological time recedes back into cyclic time, remembering offers visions of the future as well as the past. It offers the possibility of resolution (“finding solutions again”). We may perceive that our crises as well as our solutions have a periodic, cyclic nature. We may find that we have faced disaster (“against the stars”) before and survived.
We may discover that the meanings of many of our religious symbols (such as the cross, the snake and the tree of life) have shifted radically over the centuries, from symbols of life and rebirth to symbols of death, and that we can change them back again. The new stories, seemingly fresh and original, will actually be a return to origins. We may then pay more attention to the words of our remaining indigenous elders and look backwards in order to see forward. Perhaps we will see the return of the Goddess, along with her son/consort.
Many origin myths begin in images of perfection and typically fall into a few basic scenarios. One is the decline from a pure, golden race to an era of strife and ignorance (the Greek version). A second is paradise lost, the fall from innocence into knowledge and sin (the Hebrew myth). Christianity extends the second to apocalyptic finality. Modernity has contributed myths of progress, from lower to higher (the technological utopia), from sin to salvation (the religious solution) or to the Marxist paradise of equality.
Other traditions, however, such as Astrology, Tantric Buddhism and Hindu cosmology, speak of vast cosmic cycles. They offer, among other things, the possibility of a (re-) emerging story, the myth of matricentric (not matriarchal) origin. This is a narrative of times when all genders lived in partnership, and it allows us to imagine our own myth of return, and the return of myth.
Skeptics might suggest that it simply re-tells Biblical myth, with the onset of patriarchy – women’s fall from grace – substituting for the departure from Eden. But the Goddess is not a mirror image of the omnipotent, omniscient, angry Heavenly Father. She is the inherent spiritual capacity in every individual, our most ancient image of the soul. She exists in all beings that paradoxically emerge from and return to her. In a non-linear story, remembering leads to the possibility of re-experiencing the past, both as pleasure and as suffering, and this can lead to releasing the binds that prevent people – and peoples – from moving on to the next turning of the wheel.
With both the remaining indigenous wisdom as well as the new tools of archetypal psychology available to us, we can – we have to – reconstruct the original power dynamic between male and female. If we en-storied a full psychic life in which good and bad, dark and light exist within everyone, the Other would become us, and our fear of him would diminish. Then other distinctions – race, class and nation – might wither away as well.
Myths change exceedingly slowly. After all, it took perhaps 5,000 years for the myths of patriarchy and monotheism to become fully constellated across the planet. And yet, these stories have begun to crack in our lifetimes. The growth of feminism (and spiritual feminism, as well as the mythopoetic men’s movement that arose in response to it) speaks of the return of the Goddess. This narrative is already approaching mythic proportions not simply because millions entertain its images of female (and black, brown, red, yellow and gay) empowerment, but because it pulls us away from linear history, towards the cyclic processes of nature. This story of equality between genders (not, I must repeat, as women ruling over men) invites us to ask: If it happened once, why can’t it happen again?
We all understand the bumper sticker: “She’s back, and she’s pissed!” Has She returned raging and inconsolable, or can She accept our tears of remorse? Can we welcome Her by remembering things deep in our bones, what the land itself knows, and how our ancestors remembered? It is still within the power of the human community to influence the nature of Her return, and the method is ritual.
We can invoke her in two ways. First, by restoring the creative imagination. To Federico Garcia Lorca, imagination “…fixes and gives clear life to fragments of the invisible reality…” We can replicate the original processes of myth making – by telling as many alternative stories, as often as possible, until, perhaps, some of them coalesce into world stories.
Secondly, we must engage in the rituals – and do the arts – that allow us to bypass what I call the predatory and paranoid imaginations. We must become comfortable with poetry and metaphor. We must deliberately use sacred language, in the subjunctive mode: what if, perhaps, suppose, may it be so, make believe, let’s pretend – and play. Then, says Lorca, we move from dreaming to desiring. Now, all creative acts have political implications. Dianne Di Prima writes, “The only war that matters is the war against the imagination.”
Can we imagine a society like Bali – where people practice all the arts so universally, on such a daily basis, that they have no word for “art,” where communal creativity balances the worlds of the living and the unseen?
Many would argue that for 25 years the best – certainly the most popular – new American poetry has been disseminated orally, along with computers and video. Print – for the first time in 500 years – has lost its primacy in communication. It is as if the smothering blandness of TV that birthed “couch potatoes” who no longer read also brought forth a compensating expression in the spoken word. Poets and storytellers counteract the flood of images being pounded into the brain by our electronic initiators. In a noisy time, the mouth begins to speak. It is no coincidence that the most vibrant language is coming not from the academy at the center of the culture, but from the periphery, from the streets, in Hip-Hop, in poetry “slams,” and from the young and disenfranchised who refused to be silenced. Lalo Delgado spoke from that place:
see that chicano
with a big knife
in his steady hand
he doesn’t want to knife you
he wants to sit on a bench
and carve christ figures
but you won’t let him.
stupid america, hear that chicano
shouting curses on the street
he is a poet
without paper and pencil
and since he cannot write
he will explode.
stupid america, remember that chicanito
flunking math and english
he is the picasso
of your western states
but he will die
with one thousand masterpieces
hanging only from his mind.
And movies: In the final scene of the brilliant 2018 film Blindspotting, a very angry African-American man has a chance to shoot a corrupt and murderous policeman, knowing that he won’t be caught. But he chooses poetry over violence, the symbolic over the literal. It’s no coincidence, by the way, that Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, the writers and two main actors of this film, actually did spend their teenage years reciting poetry in the superb Youth Speaks program.
These voices from the margins offer white America the tremendous opportunity to welcome the Other, and in doing so, to discover that the path home is no straight and narrow superhighway. There are mixed messages everywhere. It is comforting to me to realize that some ancient languages were comfortable with ambiguity. The Greek word xenos (“stranger”) is the root of our modern – and all too common – word xenophobia (“fear of the stranger”). But, depending on its context in a sentence, xenos can also mean “guest.”
For four hundred years, white Americans have chosen to see black, red and brown people – and, for a very long time, women and gays – as unacceptably lesser than “we the people,” to carry the labels of unclean, unreliable, over-sexed, lazy and/or violent. But the new stories will remind us that we can choose to welcome the demonized Other and invite everything that America has forced outside the gates of the city back inside.
When we tell stories – myths – about how the Stranger becomes the Guest, when we agree that the darkness we’ve required him or her to hold is also part of us, that darkness becomes our blessing. The Muses, those daughters of Memory, collected the scattered limbs of dismembered bodies; it was they – art – who reassemble what the madness of the world, and the madmen who rule us, rip apart.