The Garden of Proserpine

I am a child of Earth and Starry Heaven

Orpheus and Greek Religion Chapter 6: “Life and Practices of the Follower of Orpheus”

Orpheus with animals, Roman mosaic

Notes:

  • Three doctrines of Orphism: the composite origin of humankind (Titan and God, earthly and heavenly), the hope of final apotheosis (elevation of the soul into a god), and transmigration (reincarnation, the passage of the soul from one body to another).
  • The belief in reincarnation explains the Orphic practice of vegetarianism (Guthrie calls it “the most important Orphic commandment”), since the soul of a former human may be present in an animal, and then be born back into a human, and so on – making meat-eating essentially cannibalism.
  • An Orphic needed to do two things to attain salvation: 1. Undergo initiation, and 2. Live a life aligned with Orphic notions of purity. Part of that life of purity was vegetarianism. There was the idea that there was a pre-Titanic age during which people found it “impious to eat flesh or to offer it to the gods,” and that the Orphics were resuming that practice. Another Orphic prohibition was against taking wool into temples, or being buried in wool. There is also a fragment which suggests white (and possibly linen) as a pure color, and the avoidance of birth and death.
  • Were there Orphic moral teachings? Not so much. Orphism was more individual and personal – about your own journey of soul-elevation, in whatever form that may take.
  • Orphic initiations (or conversions): Professional freelance Orphic initiators, orpheotelestai, would perform initiations for profit. They were not always regarded well by others. The Orphic Hymns are seen as significant (a form of teletai, divine writings and rites) – sacred writings in general were a lot of what Orphism depended on. The author thinks it probable that the recital of the hymns along with the appropriate (meatless) sacrifice, along with a “pantomime illustrating the theme of the recital,”  for example of the myth of Dionysos and the Titans, were what consisted an Orphic ritual. But, we don’t really know for sure.
  • Orphic initiation, pure speculation: Studying the Orphic tablets and writings written about in the Chapter 5 post can lead to a lot of speculation about what an Orphic initiation my have been like. The appendix to this chapter lists some theories – was there a bathing in (possibly boiled) milk, from the line “a kid I have fallen into milk?” Was there an Orphic ritual of the wheel? (There were wheels in temples of Persephone.) Did the Orphic initiate climb a ladder to enter a sacred enclosure? Your guess is as good as mine.
  • Was Orphism a sect? Yes in the sense that they had complicated dogma in writings which had to be studied – which was quite different from mainstream Hellenic religion, so the Orphics were always a small group. However, there is not much evidence for organized Orphic communities. The author states that there likely was some sort of organization, and there are a couple pieces of evidence, but again, we don’t know much.

Quotes:

  • “‘Many bear the wand, but few become Bakchoi’. That is to say, there are many who join in a Dionysiac orgy, but few who carry out all that an Orphic thought necessary for the attainment of union with the god. That the verse is Orphic we may say with confidence…” p.194
  • “According to the words which Aristophanes puts into the mouth of Aeschylus in the Frogs, Orpheus was famous for two things – he revealed the ways of initiation, and he taught men to abstain from killing.” p.196

Orpheus and Greek Religion Chapter 5: “The Future Life as Seen by Orpheus”

The Milky Way

Notes:

  • Orphic views on the afterlife were different than what could be called more “mainstream Hellenic” beliefs, which saw the afterlife in Hades as a gloomy, wraith-like existence without any of the pleasures of life. Though in time, more hope was available to many people in the form of  the mystery-religions and rites, such as the Eleusinian Mysteries of Demeter and Kore (promising a blessed afterlife to all initiates, rather than just the privileged heroic class for whom Elysium was normally reserved). It was possible for an initiate at Eleusis to be an Orphic as well, though “the religion of Eleusis remained fundamentally different from that of Orpheus.”
  • The purpose of Orphism: Orphism was a way of life and not just one ritual. The purpose of this way of life was to stifle one’s own “Titanic,” sinful nature, and to elevate one’s inherent divinity. (See my last post on the origins of this belief.) The Titan-self was associated with the body as a prison for the Divine-self (soul), making Orphics ascetics. There were also rites which were performed for the purpose of purifying the self. An Orphic both participated in Orphic initiation and led the Orphic life (including moral goodness).
  • Wicked Orphics? The author makes an interesting (?) note that Orphism may have appealed to the “wicked,” those who needed easy redemption. What happens to the uninitiated or those who do not live the Orphic life? There is one saying that they “shall lie in Hades as if in mud.” There are also references to punishments in Hades, such as eternally carrying water in leaky vessels.
  • Reincarnation: Orphics believed in immortality and in reincarnation – a cycle of birth and death and birth again until finally achieving “perfected divinity.” The soul’s last incarnation is as the most enlightened type of person (and Orphic initiates would likely have believed they were in that stage), a prophet or spiritual guide or healer or ruler, and finally the soul becomes a god.
  • Instructions for the dead: There have been found in graves written verses contained in cylinders attached to gold chains, worn as amulets, that gave instructions to the dead person as to what to do upon finding themself in the Underworld. I am going to copy some of these verses exactly here:

Plate from Petelia, South Italy, fourth-third century BCE:

‘Thou shalt find to the left of the House of Hades a spring,
And by the side thereof standing a white cypress.
To this spring approach not near.
But thou shalt find another, from the Lake of Memory
Cold water flowing forth, and there are guardians before it.
Say, “I am a child of Earth and starry Heaven;
But my race is of Heaven (alone). This ye know yourselves.
But I am parched with thirst and I perish. Give me quickly
The cold water flowing forth from the Lake of Memory.”
And of themselves they will give thee to drink of the holy spring,
And thereafter among the other heroes thou shalt have lordship.’

Plate from Thurii, South Italy, fourth-third century BCE:

‘But so soon as the spirit hath left the light of the sun,
Go to the right as far as one should go, being right wary in all things.
Hail, thou who hast suffered the suffering. This thou hadst never suffered before.
Thou art become god from man.
A kid thou art fallen into milk.
Hail, hail to thee journeying the right hand road
By holy meadows and groves of Persephone.’

Three more tablets from Thurii, roughly the same date as previous:

‘I have come from the pure, pure Queen of those below,
And Eukles and Eubuleus, and other Gods and Daemons:
For I also avow that I am of your blessed race.
And I have paid the penalty for deeds unrighteous,
Whether it be that fate laid me low of the gods immortal
Or…with star-flung thunderbolt.
I have flown out of the sorrowful, weary circle.
I have passed with swift feet to the diadem desired.
I have sunk beneath the bosom of the Mistress, the Queen of the underworld.
And now I have come a suppliant to holy Persephoneia,
That of her grace she send me to the seats of the Hallowed.–
Happy and blessed one, thou shalt be god instead of mortal.
A kid I have fallen into milk.’
  • Notes on the verses: The “earth and starry heaven” go back to the mythology, for the Titans were children of Gaia (Earth) and Ouranos (Heaven), but at the same time the initiate must show that they’ve lived a pure life and are only of Heaven. The initiate has atoned for the Titans’ crime. The springs mentioned are Lethe (Oblivion) and Mnemosyne (Memory), and the initiate must drink from Mnemosyne. The “kid into milk” may be a reference to Dionysos and the gifts of milk, honey, and wine, or may be a way of saying that the initiate has fallen into something good. It may even be interpreted as the starry Milky Way (see note below). Eukles and Eubuleus can both be epithets of Zeus Chthonios. Eubuleus could also be Dionysos. Dionysos is sometimes syncretized with Hades (Zeus Chthonios) anyway.
  • Where does the god-soul go? Heaven, or the aither, where the gods dwell, and of which stars are made. There is actually evidence for the Greco-Roman belief that the Milky Way was “the abode of souls,” each possibly its own star. The god-souls go to the stars, aither to aither.

Quotes:

  • “In Homer the generally accepted notion is that death is the negation of all the attributes that make life worth living.” p.149
  • “Orphism was a religion with a belief in immortality an in posthumous rewards and punishments.” p.164
  • From the Timaeus of Plato: “When the Creator first made the individual souls, he made them ‘equal in number to the stars, and assigned each one to a star’, and while they were still on the stars he taught them the nature of the Universe, and what was to be their own fate, namely to be implanted in bodies. ‘When they had been implanted in bodies by the workings of necessity,…first of all the faculty of sensation, one and the same for all, would be naturally aroused in them as a result of violent impressions, and secondly love, mingled with pleasure and pain, and in addition to these fear and anger and all the passions which either result from these or are their contraries. If they conquered these passions, they would live with righteousness, but if they were conquered by them, with unrighteousness; and the one who lived his appointed time well, would travel again to dwell in his proper star, and live a blessed life according to his true nature.’” p.186-187

Orpheus and Greek Religion Chapter 4: “The Creation and the Gods as Presented by Orpheus”

Orphic Egg – Tom Bagshaw

 

Notes:

  • In the face of rising Christianity, the Orphic writings were an opportunity for the Hellenic Pagans to say, “Oh, we believe sort of the same thing that you believe, but we thought of it first and better.” Some similarities between Orphic writing and Christianity include the concept of original sin, the separation of soul and body, and an afterlife attainable through living the right sort of life.
  • To Orpheus, like Hesiod, was attributed a theogony (well, several Orphic theogonies are analyzed) and creation story. The accounts are SO complicated and different it is nearly impossible to keep track of them. This is the (very, very simplified*) version I’m putting together for my personal purposes, that draws from the different sources:
  • In the beginning are either Chronos the serpentine god (Time) or prophetic Nyx (Night).  Chronos or Nyx create an egg from which is born Eros (who is also Phanes, Protogonos, Metis, Dionysos, Erikepaios). Eros, the procreator, the spark of life, is the creator of Gaia (Earth) and (Heaven). From Earth and Heaven are born the Titans, Kronos, Okeanos, and others, and from Kronos is born Zeus and some other Olympians. We are familiar with the story of how Zeus defeats Kronos. All over, right? We can move on with regular Greek mythology now, right?
  • WRONG. Because see, Orphic Zeus is the creator god. But wait, you say, I thought Eros was the creator god? Or Chronos or Nyx? No longer. Zeus swallows Eros (Phanes, Protogonos, Metis, Dionysos, Erikepaios) and brings all of creation together within Zeus – all back into one. Then Zeus divides again and creates the world anew – aither and sky, sea and earth, all gods and goddesses, “all that was then in being and all that was to come to pass.”
  • Zeus is now “beginning, middle, and end of all.” Zeus IS the Infinite, he is Divinity, all are from Zeus and to Zeus all shall return (Remember that “Zeus Chthonios” is a name of Hades – he is chthonic Zeus too). Zeus is the All, named male and female, beginning, middle, and end.
  • The question becomes, why was it necessary for there to be two creators? Why not just one? The author contemplates this answer. It sounds like it was more an Orphic reaction to “Zeus is the ruler of the gods, that means he MUST be the creator”…and finding a way to make him the creator. In a cult that worshiped Dionysos above all others, it may also have been a way of maintaining the supremacy of Zeus to the outside (non-Orphic) world, a sign of respecting the supreme god of the Hellenes. But Zeus already exists mythically at that point and was not a creator – which is why other gods have to do the real creation and help Zeus along the way. (Confusing? Totally. But also an interesting historical interpretation.)
  • Zeus gives birth to Athena, “accomplisher of his will.” (Remember in the myth how he swallowed Metis (Wisdom) before birthing Athena? See how it’s starting to connect?) With Rhea-Demeter he has Persephone, with Persephone he has Dionysos, who he names his heir: “Give ear ye gods, this one have I made your king.”
  • And now for another extremely important story that follows: the death of Dionysos. The Titans, driven by jealousy, distract the young Dionysos (alternately called Zagreus) with mirrors and toys, and while he plays they tear him to pieces and eat his flesh. His limbs are taken by Apollo; his heart is saved by Athena and given to Zeus, who uses it to re-birth Dionysos. (Remember how Dionysos is one of the names of the god swallowed by Zeus? He is thrice-born.) Zeus strikes the Titans with lightning, and from their ashes are created us – humans.
  • That is extremely important in that it explains human nature – we are of the Titans (capable of great evil), yet we also contain within us the pure divine soul of Dionysos. We are of, as the Orphics say, “earth and starry heaven,” body and soul. Dionysos can liberate us from our Titan selves, and there is a sense of atonement as well for the crimes of our ancestors.

Quotes:

  • On a “central doctrine” of Orphism: “Everything comes to be out of One and is resolved into One.” p.75
  • “After what we know already of the Orphic writings, it will come as no surprise to learn that they were marked by syncretism, so far as we can judge, right from the outset. Here was a system which, on the side of doctrine, taught of the absorption of everything, gods included, into one god, and their rebirth from him again, and on the side of active religion taught the complementary idea of the worship of one god above all others.” p.100

*I am seriously not kidding, the different Orphic creation accounts make my head spin and I am not at ALL doing their complexity justice here. The only thing I can recommend if you have an interest is to read it on your own. Because, wow.

When you open the gate

Victorian planchette

I’m going to be honest about a few things regarding the recent usage of my spirit board with friends.

During the invocation to Persephone, I felt my hands tingle and grow numb. I felt immensely powerful and deeply connected. I felt Her presence coursing through the room like a powerful river engulfing us all. Sink or swim.

The incense, the prayer, the atmosphere, the gliding of the planchette all combined to induce a lightheaded, trance-like, fearless state. We asked, and they answered – sometimes haltingly, with great trouble, and sometime firmly and directly.

This is my surprised revelation: I was not afraid. Not ever. Though I’ve grown up afraid of ghosts and spirits and everything unseen, actual communication (stunted, unpracticed communication, but communication still) did not scare me. I felt comfortable and powerful and right. I only note this because of how surprised I am by it.

I’m going to be honest about the fact that I feel a change after using the spirit board. About the fact that I now feel more whole and complete, not less. I feel more fulfilled and happy and less afraid, in general.

I’m going to be honest about the fact that I don’t understand why that is.

I feel like someone that had an old, aching hunger and got a taste and wants more, so much more. And I don’t know if that should worry me.

When you open the gate, does the gate also open you?

Orpheus and Greek Religion Chapter 3: “Orpheus and His Story”

Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld – Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot

Notes:

  • Origins: Orpheus was believed to be from Thrace, though there is also evidence to suggest he may have been a native Hellene who lived in Thrace. In any case, he was definitely localized in Thrace. Some historians even believed him to be an ancestor of Homer. He was not treated by ancient historians as either a god or a man – but as a hero, on a par with someone like Herakles. There are different accounts of his parentage – most often as the son of the Muse Kalliope and either Apollo or Oiagros, a Thracian river god.
  • Stories: There are a few main stories in which he plays a part: the Death of Eurydice, the voyage of the Argonauts, and the story of his death. Most of the focus in the chapter is on the death of Eurydice and the story of Orpheus’ death.
  • The Death of Eurydice: It’s important that he descended to the world of the dead. That is how he is said to have gained his knowledge of the mysteries of the afterlife. Orpheus himself may have originally been an Underworld spirit (interesting that Eurydice, ‘wide-ruling’, might even be an epithet of Persephone), or a follower or priest of Apollo who became initiated into the mysteries of the Underworld (this is the view the author holds). It is interesting that in some accounts, especially early ones, there is no Eurydice to account for his presence in the Underworld – he just belongs there. But later Plato and Euripides and Virgil and Ovid tell the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. The story goes that she was a Thracian nymph who was charmed by his music. She was killed by snakebite, and Orpheus followed her to the Underworld, where he continued to charm the spirits with his music. Persephone and Hades granted his request to take his wife back to the Upperworld. In one version of the story he seems successful in accomplishing this. In another account Hades sends with him only a specter of his wife, since it was all he deserved for not following his wife into the Underworld “the proper way” (dying).  The well-known story was probably from Alexandrian times – in which he looks back to make sure his wife is following him, which he is not supposed to do, and she is immediately sent back. In that version he thereafter shuns the company of women, preferring the company of men.
  • The Death of Orpheus: In one version he angers the women of Thrace (by shunning them and taking their husbands away) so they kill him with assorted weapons. In another version, Orpheus remains committed to Apollo and angers Dionysos, whose religion is taking hold in Thrace, and he has the maenads tear him to pieces. In yet a third version, he is killed by Zeus’ lightning for a sort of Promethean “knowing too much” or knowing things only gods should know, having access to afterlife mysteries which he should not have access to.
  • AFTER he dies, there are different accounts of what happened next. In one account he is buried by the Muses, in a tomb forbidden by order of Dionysos to be disturbed (it is and the city is destroyed). A more popular version is the one in which the head and lyre of Orpheus floated to the island Lesbos, all the while continuing to sing. It is said they built a Temple of Bakhos over the spot where the head was buried, and that the lyre was dedicated in the Temple of Apollo. It is also said that the head continued to give oracles until Apollo commanded him to stop, saying Orpheus was encroaching on his realm of prophecy.
  • Apollo/Dionysos: There is a really interesting dynamic between Apollo and Dionysos in the story of Orpheus. The author shows the idea that Orpheus was a priest of Apollo with a “streak of mysticism” drawn to take part in, and reform, the cult of Dionysos. Therefore Orphism can be said to be a sort of blending of Dionysian religion with Apollonian influences. The author goes on to show how connected the cults of Apollo and Dionysos grew to become. The most interesting thing I found is that in Orphic accounts, Apollo and Dionysos are two faces of the same sun god. This actually makes a lot of sense to me.

Quotes:

  • “There certainly seems to have been, in every age, enough of the Apolline in Orpheus to support the opinion that he belonged at first to the sunny, open-air religion of the Hellenes, a priest of Apollo bearing in himself many of the attributes of the god he served; it was later that he met Dionysos and became the expounder of a sacramental religion and of the life hereafter.” p.30
  • “The individuality of Orpheus refuses to be submerged…There are times when he seems on the point of becoming merged with the lyre-playing god Apollo, and others when, thinking of his death perhaps, we wonder whether he is only an incarnation of the Thracian Dionysos. Always he emerges as something different, not quite like either of the gods and definitely more than an abstraction of certain of their qualities.” p.39
  • “To the question, “who was the god of the Orphic religion?’ there can be but one answer – Dionysos. Orpheus was a religious founder, and the religion he founded was a species of the Bacchic.” p.41
  • “Yet we see that Orpheus himself is far from being a Bacchic figure. If he preached the religion of Dionysos he at the same time reformed it.” p.41-42
  • “It is well to bear in mind, before we leave the question, that these two gods [Apollo and Dionysos], in spite of the persistent antagonism of their characters and of the religious spirit which each represented, were not always separated in the minds of the Greek people, nor their cults kept strictly apart. This is seen best at the most famous of all seats of Greek cult, at Delphi. Among the gods whom Apollo was supposed to have superseded at the shrine Dionysos is mentioned, and the Delphic Oracle was instrumental in spreading the worship of Dionysos. This alliance meant a modification for both types of worship, though they were too radically different to ever become merged. This did not prevent the flexible mind of the Greek from associating the two in cult and so, by a step easier for them than for us, addressing the two at the moment as one. A late (AD) oratorical writer says, addressing Apollo: ‘at Delphi they honor thee with double title, calling thee Apollo and Dionysos.” p.42-43
  • “The Orphics never had the power to bring it [the syncretism of Apollo and Dionysos] about, but it was their purpose to foster it, and in their syncretistic literature they identified the two gods by giving out that both alike were Helios, the Sun, Helios = supreme god = Dionysos = Apollo.” p.43
  • “We should of course admit at once that the character of Orpheus grew like a snowball with the passage of the centuries.” p.49
  • “If we may trust Plutarch, they [women] took a keen part in these [Orphic] rites as in all types of Dionysiac religion.” p.50

Orpheus and Greek Religion Ch 1-2: “Famous Orpheus” & “What is Meant by Orphism?”

Orpheus – Franz Stuck

I’ve had a strong interest in Orphism for a while now. As a devotee of Persephone, an important figure in Orphic tradition, the interest seemed to come naturally. I find that Orphic beliefs match my own to an astonishing degree. I’ve researched to the best of my ability online- not extensively, but intently – for a while, but this is the first scholarly book I’ve bought exclusively on the subject. The book is Orpheus and Greek Religion by WKC Guthrie.

Today I read the introduction, preface, Chapter 1: Famous Orpheus, and Chapter 2: What is Meant by Orphism? Most of this was “review” for me, but was still extremely interesting and may also be of interest to others.

I intend here to record my notes as I read, in plain language, as much for myself as for others who may be interested in learning more about Orphism.

Notes:

  • Orphism can be called a “religion,” but only in a loose definition of the term. The author refers to it as a “religious system” primarily based on literature attributed to Orpheus. It was considered a reform and variation of traditional Greek religion, but was not a wild deviation; for example, one could worship Dionysos and also be Orphic, but not all worshipers of Dionysos were Orphic.
  • The date of composition of Orphic writing is understood to be Preclassical Greece, while the date of compilation is the Hellenistic era.
  • Orphism was considered quite eclectic.
  • The first mention of Orpheus comes from a poet Ibykos who lived in the 6th century BCE.
  • Most think of Orpheus as a mythical musician and poet. Scholars debate whether he was a historical person, an ancient god, or a figure of legend. Though there is still uncertainty, many conclude that he is a figure of legend, of great important to the Ancient Greeks. He was seen as a Thracian musician, teacher, poet, writer, magician, reformer, prophet.
  • Orphic practices included the prohibition of wool in temples or tombs, and vegetarianism in the belief that it was “impious either to eat [flesh] or to pollute the altars of the gods with blood.” There is a desire to avoid violence.
  • Orpheus was seen as a magician to whom are attributed “charms, spells, and incantations.”
  • Orphism had an influence of some sort on Christianity, visible especially in art. “In speaking of Christian art one may mention the enigmatic seal in the Berlin Museum which has carved on it a human figure nailed to a cross. Above the cross are seven stars and a crescent moon, and around and beneath it are the words Orpheos Bakkikos.”
  • The centers of Orphic belief: the myth of the dismemberment of Dionysos by the Titans, the Titans punished by Zeus’ lighting strike, humanity being born from the ashes. Therefore, human nature (from the Titans) is evil, but an escape from that evil is possible through proper practices and virtue. There is a belief in reincarnation to give enough time to purify the soul. There is also a focus on “blissful communion” with divinity.
  • Orphism can be understood as an ethical and spiritual reform movement linking life before death to life after death.

Quotes:

  • “Greek religion was a many-sided thing.” p. 6
  • “The Greeks were not generally given to speculation and certainly not to dogmatic statements about the origins of the world or the gods; Hesiod and Orpheus were among the few whose myths dealt with their beginnings.” p.xviii
  • On Orphic creation accounts: “Everything comes from a primal unity and finally returns to its source, undergoing separation and division only between the beginning and the end.” p.xix
  • “To us the differences between the worship of Olympian Zeus and the mysteries of Demeter may seem as great as those between any two religions of more modern times. Yet not only did they never lead to wars or persecutions, but it was perfectly possible for the same man to be a devout participant in both.” p.7
  • “Almost all the different shades of belief are to be found which in studying Greek religion we take such pains to separate, and the conception of God’s relation to men may vary from one as external as Homer’s to the purest forms of mysticism. Religion in the last resort is of the individual, and no two men’s religions are exactly alike.” p.8
  • “Viewing Orphism as a reform of Dionysiac energy in the direction of Apollonian sanity allows us to focus on the two deities who are polar opposites yet mutually attracting in Orphism.” p.xx

Homecoming: Vignettes from Viejo San Juan

1. Noche de San Juan

11:50pm at Escambrón beach. Dark water, dark sky, but on the beach everything lit, and there is music, and there is dancing, and there is anticipation.

I am in the warm seawater, turning back and forth between the dark expanse ahead of me and the bright lights behind. My sister joins me in the water, and later my wife. We wait until midnight, when El Día de San Juan Bautista begins.

And suddenly, now: Everyone on the beach runs into the water, happily shouting, and in scattered unison hundreds of people turn around and throw themselves backwards into the water, over and over again. Not slipping, not dropping, but throwing. We self-baptize in honor of the Baptist, twelve times backwards into the dark water.

This is Midsummer: We wash off the bad luck from the old year, and we initiate ourselves in the blessed water.

A happy coincidence (or not): The pain that had been in my knee since my bike accident – after this night it’s gone.

2. La Que Sabe

The book I bring with me for the trip is Women who Run with the Wolves. I bought it on a whim, but listen – I take medicine every day for my mind, for my body. This book is medicine for the soul. And I wouldn’t say that, especially in that way, if I didn’t mean it.

In the book are stories, myths, fairy tales – analyzed as archetypal psychology and applied to the idea of reclaiming the wild, instinctual, nature. (As a side note, I find that people who complain about archetypes often have no idea what they’re talking about – an archetype is a powerful thing.) This is the criatura buried within, La Que Sabe, Wild Woman, Bone Woman. La Que Sabe, the One Who Knows. The one who will not be repressed, silenced, powerless. As I read I feel inner eyes opening, opening, opening. I want to know this woman, this Wild Woman, I want to know her and I want her to speak through me. I’ve missed her.

At the time, I don’t realize that on this trip I will become deeply reacquainted with her.

3. Atabey

I study Taíno mythology, two hours a day, painstakingly translating from Spanish to English at the local cafe.

Now when I swim in the ocean, I meet Atabey, goddess of waters and the moon, and I listen to her, and she gives me gifts: shells that spiral so perfectly, and calm, calm, calm.

This climate challenges to its core my east coast US body. On my third day I get terrible sunburn – I NEVER get sunburn. And my hair, which I’ve always tried so hard to keep smooth and straightish, frizzes and expands uncontrollably. It laughs in the face of anti-frizz products. It is a creature of its own. How embarrassing to admit that this is enough to make me cry. How ugly I feel, how frustrated that this island will not treat me gently, will not let me shine.

But Atabey, in her wisdom, she who controls the climate, she was waiting to welcome me after all. It is not my job to treat you gently, she says. It is my job to bring you home.

The criatura, my Wild Woman, speaks: Listen to Atabey.

4. Bomba

One night I go to the plaza in front of my hostel to watch the bomba dancers. I can watch forever. They enrapture me.

In bomba, a traditional Puerto Rican dance, the women dance alone – and the drummers must follow THEIR steps. Their dances create the music, rather than the other way around. How amazing, to see the power these women hold in their bodies, the freedom they have, the way the drummers’ eyes fix upon them as they work up a sweat following the dancers’ quick, intricate steps.

A girl of no more than 8 dances right up to the lead drummer, and stops dancing – so he stops drumming – she turns her skirts lighting quick – he drums a wild beat – she stops and turns her head to him quick – he stops drumming – and so forth. His eyes never leave her. He is completely focused, completely in the moment, responding to her wishes, responding to the power of this tiny woman.

“I want to do that,” I think to myself.

The criatura speaks: You can do that.

5. Salsa

Given a taste for live Puerto Rican music, I need more. We find a popular salsa club and get dressed up to go.

We’d been to the beach earlier that day and I don’t have quite enough time to shower – leaving me with ultra-big, ultra-frizzy beach hair.

As I grow more disheartened, the criatura speaks: Make it bigger.

Hesitantly, I push my fingers up through my hair and lift up, lift out.

And, there it is.

It’s perfect.

How could I have cried over this?

I add eyeliner and a mini-skirt and dance all night.

6. Something to take with me

I am out shopping for an anniversary gift for my wife (which I do buy), and I see some jewelry from a local designer. It’s not what I would usually go for at all – it’s big and bold. But something about the fan-shaped silver disk on one piece catches my attention.

The criatura speaks: Try it on.

As soon as I put it on I feel something click into place. I feel, somehow, as if the piece had been missing from my life.

The necklace is big and bold and very long, silver with chains and pearls, nothing I usually go for in jewelry, but the criatura says, This is yours. And it is.

7. In conclusion

What small things make a life – hair and jewelry and dancing don’t matter, do they? Oh, but they do. Small things matter. And a string of changes in a string of small things – that makes something big. That makes something transformative.

It took a trip to my ancestral land to discover Wild Woman. Now that I’ve met her, I’m never letting go.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 56 other followers