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I live in a literate culture. Now, even more than ever, communication takes place through the 2-dimensional mediums of text and image. Video chat has taken the place of face-to-face meetings in many contexts, texting has replaced hours of phone calls and I have comment threads instead of conversations with several people at once. I don’t feel a need to bemoan these changes, but I do feel a need to observe them. What I see when I do that is a decreasing level of importance placed on the location of the person’s body who is engaged in communication through one of these mediums. What I do with my feet while texting seems to have little direct impact on how the recipient of the message will respond, for example.
If I look below and behind the cultural overtones of these 2-D practices, I start to see something else. What is in that space doesn’t demand attention like a YouTube video does, so it is easy to overlook. There, down under the assumption that the rest of my body doesn’t matter when my face is on video chat, lies the question that is the title of this post. I found it floating over to me one day while I was doing my regular meditation on connecting with sunlight. I stand with my eyes closed and carefully orient my face towards the sun, based on the sensation of light and warmth alone. Then I stand in that sensation for at least three breaths before stepping forward into whatever the next action is. It was a day with a schedule, and I felt like taking time with the sunlight might help me sort it out a bit better. As the rays landed on my forehead and palms, there the question was, expecting an answer.
As a practitioner of a revivalist spirituality that seeks to connect with some very old practices that originated long before culture was carried out primarily in 2-D mediums, I spend a lot of time looking at artifacts from thousands of years ago and thinking about world views. I often wonder about what sort of underlying ways of seeing guided the people who painted the symbols that have fascinated me for so long. What did it feel like to be the potter who painted my favorite octopus vase? How did the person who applied the red to mark the center of a flower on a mural decide when and what to eat? What did a parent who lived near a beach that is now under the sea choose to do when a child came running over to them with a found seashell? Rather than tales of wars and power, I feel that it is the combined thread of what is behind these little decisions that most fully describes a culture.
On more than one occasion, someone has said to me, or in my presence, that we can’t know anything about the past until we find a primary, written source that explains it to us. To me, this appears to be a statement that is really about translation. It seems to encode the idea that the past cannot be meaningful unless it is translated into today’s preferred method of communication. When someone makes a variant of that statement, I hear a comment that has more to do with a contemporary person’s abilities and limits in terms of how they receive information than at does with understanding the past. Conversely, I could also be missing the point completely. Perhaps we can’t know anything for certain unless it is written down.
Is knowing something for certain the most important thing? Could it be that the primacy of the concept of knowing something for certain on an intellectual level is relatively recent, and might not have had the same meaning to the people who lived in the past that we ascribe to it now? What appears to me in this case is a different question. What does the tangible inheritance we do have from the past tell us? Put another way, how does the language of 3-dimensional shape and form used by the ancient Minoans communicate? I claim them as my spiritual ancestors, so what can I learn from the way they organized space? It seems possible to me that the spaces they created, which endured across many generations held meaning for them that I could access some version of by relating to a space with a similar shape. This is the way dances and gestures retain meaning as they are passed down. It is a common way for cultures with strong oral elements pass along meaning in many ways. At its most basic, it is how children learn to communicate, by doing something they have seen someone else do.
I can’t read an account of something that happened thousands of years ago on an island across the world form where I live. Instead of focusing on the absence of that experience, I can do what my daughter does all the time. I can look at what happened, then do it to the best of my ability. Then I can pay attention to the results and decide if I want to do something like that again in hopes of getting similar results. Rather than waiting for a written history, I can look at the art and artifacts. I can dive into their wealth of visual and symbolic information to see what I can learn by doing.
It is not possible to read text written by people alive when the art was created that explains what is happening in a mural on the wall of a former temple like it is in a museum today that focuses on contemporary art. It is absolutely possible for me to hold my body in the ways the subjects of the mural hold their bodies, or to make art that uses the shapes and symbols they used. If I can let go of the need for an intellectual explanation of what I am doing until after the fact, different possibilities can emerge. As I do this, I can entertain the possibility that the reason we don’t have title cards for the Minoan murals could be that the people who painted them didn’t feel they were needed. Perhaps they had other priorities that included other ways of knowing things that didn’t require textual verification and support.
Several things have emerged for me so far from this direction of inquiry. The first is that their buildings show that they took care to orient them in specific ways that connected to astronomical occurrences. I have had the opportunity to do some of this in my own life, on a very small scale. I don’t have the ability to build anything approaching the scale of a Minoan temple. I do have the opportunity to build a version of something much smaller. It is a little feature that is most often overlooked by discussions of the past, but it is what is what I can do here and now. Through the process of building and living with this purposeful alignment and arrangement of materials in space, I have learned a great deal from the lived experience it brings about.
An important part of this for me has been a deeper awareness of the presence of light. Through the process of learning about how to build something that will meet the brilliance emanating from a celestial body at a particular angle at a particular time, I have also been learning about what it is necessary to do with my body to bring that moment about. I have been learning what is needed to allow me to move fairly large stones into the locations they need to be in for that to happen. I needed to learn which muscles and which angles to use in the lifting and pushing. I needed to learn which chants to sing and which drum beats to play that would allow me to get to a state where such lifting could be done safely. I had to learn all kinds of things about how stones behave and how sand forms into shapes.
The process included what it feels like to have accomplished a physical feat that I didn’t know I could carry out until I needed to do it. At the end of the building, I was able to look at a photograph of a small structure that is 4,000 years and say “I know how that can be built” because I had just finished doing it. An important distinction to make here is that I don’t claim to know how the people who changed the shape of the physical world in a particular place did it or even why they did it. Instead, I am interested in knowing who to get a similar result in my time and place in my personal rearranging of the physical. I am like the child who looks at what someone older than I am did and tries it out to see if it gets results I want to repeat.
So far, those results have mostly been about listening. I have been learning what it feels like to stand on a stone that I placed so that it can let me know when the light will be in just the right place for me to be there with it. I have been hearing what the sound of bear feet walking a pattern based on voluntary limits is like to make. I have found the need to gain all kinds of skills related to keeping rocks clean that I didn’t know existed. There are also other things that have no words, but that are in my hands, my joints, and in my muscle memories of what I did when I manufactured tools out of pieces of my construction materials, then realized they would have been undetectable to an archeologist because they had not been changed in any way, only chosen. All of these moments are small and personal at the same time as large and connective. They don’t make me better than anyone else to have experienced them, but they do make me better at being myself than I was before I participated in them. Through them, I learned of new capacities that I did not know I could possess.
There is a difference in the feeling that comes from completing a building project that has the goal of providing shelter and one that has the goal of providing an opportunity to align with sunlight. It is similar in some ways to the difference between writing a technical manual and writing a poem. The same medium produces two very different results. Each goal has its own set of circumstances that it brings about and its own set of teachings to share with the people involved.
My experience was one of slow magic that was carried out in silence simply because words would not be useful in accomplishing it. I was doing it unaided by other humans. All of the calculations were spatial. Most of them were based on relationships between objects. Using letters, words or numbers would have complicated things.
Slow magic like I experienced in the building doesn’t translate well into anything written either, because it happens in the same 3-dimensional space that my body occupies. I could take photos of it, or get on video chat to discuss it, but I could not actually share with another person the embodied feeling of standing there, with my feet on a stone and my forehead receiving the sunlight. I could talk about it with someone else, but not truly share it. To do that, they would have to be and move in space with me.
As I stood there, being surprised by the question, I found myself doing my best to give the response the question seemed to require. This was to honor the question’s source, the stones under my feet, the air in my lungs, my body, its source, the light, its origin point, the water that makes my blood flow, where it comes from, and everything all of that is connected to.
In attempting to do that, I am doing my best at honoring life by practicing the magic of presence. If the ways they chose to organize space are any indication, the people who lived on Crete during the Bronze Age and before were consummate master of the same type of magic. They were very good at arranging physical space in particular ways. Maybe it doesn’t matter that I can’t read their thoughts on their experiences. Perhaps the fact that I am doing this here and now is a way to step into a dance that can be both beautiful and satisfying. The same has been be true for me with the smaller actions, like pouring a libation or being present for a sunrise or offering a listening ear. Perhaps it is joining the dance that matters most, even more than understanding it. What do you honor by your presence?
I know what it is to be broken
Body parts packaged
Claimed by Medicine
That I would not
Move ankle, neck, wrist or knee
Again like I used to
Every movement in pain
Memories of what is no longer
These numbers are distracting
Can’t I do without counting?
Be without measure?
The tree is in shadow
A squirrel drops shells on my head
The sun arrives very small
Light on my fingers is warm
Light in my eyes makes me squint
Day is reaching the place
Where the tree branches spread
I hold in mid-step, facing the light
Or is it Twenty-one?
Arms have left Tired behind
Legs fluid and low
Garden flowers are beautiful
No pain as I turn
Arms over my head
A circle after circles
I come to a stop
A circle made
By learning feet
Above the roots
As walnuts fall
As ashes rain
A sky of orange
A plume of smoke
Are you OK?
My people safe
Their towns in flames
I breathe in
A piece of place
Made by fire
From trees I loved
Animals I knew
They couldn’t leave
No time to run
From my lungs
Into my blood
Part of me
My flesh now holds
What was a tree
What was a bird
What was the woods
I walk in a circle
By my shoes on soil
And my daughter’s steps
Ashes and dust
Talking of water
We can breathe today
We can move our limbs
It is good to be
Alive right now
I have been trying to see the way forward, looking for ways to understand where I should devote my energies. Ways to get ready for the future. This isn’t an easy task, because we are all in a situation that hasn’t occurred in our lifetime, or in our parents lifetime. A pandemic like this hasn’t been here since my oldest grandfather (now an ancestor) was only 1 year old. Nobody I can ask has experience with what I am facing right now. On my search for answers, I am finding an absence.
Much can be learned from the past, but in this case what I have learned from the research I have been doing on the 1918 Influenza epidemic leads to more questions than answers I can put into practice. The questions lead to ideologies instead of solutions, to inflexibility instead of innovation, and to priorities that certainly aren’t mine because I see what they would bring into my life.
Plenty of voices around me are telling me that if I give them some money or some of my time, they will tell me how to make it all go back to normal, how to return things to the way they were, how to stop worrying and focus on marketing, or how to forget what is happening and start binge-watching my choice of shows. Here again I end up looking at ideas of “normal” that don’t correspond to mine and a romanticization of a time that was actually the direct cause of this one, and not likely to contain its solution. The rose-colored glasses have thick lenses and are easy to come by. I choose not to accept a pair so that I can avoid stumbling as I take a step forward. As I look around at my memories of last year, and the years just before that, more questions arrive.
In my previous post on the Way of the Cornucopia I looked into some of what is behind these questions. Here I want to explore sources of advice and wisdom. To do that, we need to step out of the stream of voices and move at a different rate. We might very well have time to do that now, after all. Let’s close the social media, leave the Zoom meeting, turn off the computer, put away the smartphone, push the little button on the TV that leaves its vast screen black and empty. What do we have if we do that?
We have ourselves and all of the things that belong truly to us. We have all that is genuine and all that is difficult about who we are and what choices we have made so far in life. A lot of what is being said right now reads to me as what happens when people who don’t like what they see in the mirror area at a loss for how to distract themselves. In these times it is getting harder to confuse distraction with meaning.
We also have whatever spirituality or religion we may be a part of. When I say this I do not mean the power structures that can sometimes go with these words. I mean the observable impacts of our personal version of these things as we actually practice them. Attending a ritual is a cultural practice that includes many other people. What happens in our live afterwards is ours on a much deeper level.
For me, this includes an ongoing ancestor practice where I seek to heal the trans-generational trauma that has wreaked so much havoc in my life, and in the life of some of my blood relations. I am not unusual in having this to deal with. Most (maybe all) of us share some version of this experience. What is a little different about me in this case is that I have made the choice to acknowledge something that is deeply uncomfortable and make an effort to change it.
This might not at first appear to have much to do with my search for practical solutions to looking for the path forward here and now. Let’s look a little below the surface. In a nation that doesn’t even acknowledge its dead most of the time, much less mourn them or respect them, there is so much emptiness and confusion in the lives of the living. Doubt is a very effective tool for reinforcing the power structures of the highly privileged where I live, but it doesn’t help when faced with a decision in a pressure situation like this. Doubt may have helped you look suitably disenchanted as you held your drink with its artisanal ice cube at a party a couple years ago, but it won’t help you respond to the death of a family member or to prolonged isolation this month or today.
This is where my ancestors come in. I find that an ancestor practice can have profound effects on subtle levels in times like these. I am their living descendant, and they care a great deal about making sure that this is still the case. My practice is a useful source of wisdom because nobody has my back like my healthy and whole ancestors from times past when people had a better idea than I do how to navigate extreme uncertainty and challenges.
Many of them lived through catastrophic changes like the medieval Black Plague, the Late Bronze Age Collapse, the climate change at the end of the Ice Age, earthquakes, fires, wars, genocides, floods, plagues, and famines. All of us are descended from people who are in one or more of those categories. These people did things in those situations that worked, things that were useful, and things that helped them survive. If this wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t be here. They know how to keep on living and they are generally happy to share with the living.
By connecting with my ancestors through my ancestor healing practice, I am re-opening the reciprocal communication that has been part of every culture in every part of the planet if you go back far enough. Not everyone did it the same way, to be sure, but at some point all of us had ancestors who communicated with their ancestors. In many of the places where my people are from, the dead were at one time buried under the floors of the houses their living descendants occupied. This speaks to a worldview that had an active place in it for listening to the wisdom of ancestors who had survived.
Reconnecting with this ancient stream of energy is in many ways like releasing a river from behind a partially crumbling dam. Things aren’t going to be the same afterwards, but the change might very well be worth it in the long run. Pressure is released and the broader spectrum of life can head back towards complexity and diversity. With all the talk of “going back to normal,” did we forget that we can’t do that in this time, or in any time? We can only go forward into what happens next. The future doesn’t look like the past, no matter how much some of us want it to. I prefer to look for ways to make sure it has a place for me and my family in it.
My first answer to the pandemic was to suggest that we leave behind the military rhetoric of “fighting disease” in order to fill your life with the blessings of things that bring joy, meaning and wellness. This time around I am suggesting that we look for our ancestors who survived and who have wisdom to share so that we can do the same. They are here in our bones, in our dreams, and in the quiet places where we go to be alone. We can listen to them and learn to make better decisions this time around so that our descendants will still be here when we are ancestors, and theirs after them, for many more generations.
To conclude, I would like to share an image that came to me through my meditation on the joyous profusion of flowers in Minoan art. They are in borders, on pottery, painted growing wild, shown in gardens, and in people’s hair. I have come to see them as a symbol of the health benefits that can come through a stable and well ancestral connection. Flowers are the hope for a future where we can live and be well. We still feel an echo of this when someone leaves a handful of blooms on a grave.
A flower is what comes up from the earth and makes new things burst into now from the past so that the future can come to be. It is both beautiful and decidedly practical in the same way as an ancestor practice. Flowers are no light-weights. The image they have acquired more recently of being airheads is very much at odds with the roles they play in the world. They are ingenious tools plants use for survival. This survival is accomplished through a deep connection with the beauty and power of color, and it is based in the darkness inside the earth. They are living, hardworking symbols of the future. The future they strive towards is one filled with a sweet smells, butterflies and the sound of bees. It is the kind of future I would like to see because it has a place for people like me in it.
Next time you are taking your exercise walk, consider smelling the flowers. Hold the possibility in your mind that you have your own stream of ancestral wisdom available to you. Allow yourself to take in the scent and the color, and see where that goes.
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As we speak
We shape the world
As we see
We are the mirror
As we love
We make it so
A story is
A thing alive
A river flows
New banks are cut
We’re always part
Where things go to hide
A ball of roots
A piece of salt
A fish can swim
There was something else
A field of mud
A long dark space
A place that grows
Nothing quite like rest
A meeting ground
A state within
Not the end, not quite
A longer view
A need to help
A way done wrong
From a whispered voice
A stone awake
A marsh in tears
A hand to hold
The body decays
A bone is rock
A lady moves
A new thing born
One hand seen that takes
A place of rest
A doorway moves
A hand that gives
I am standing in the cool air of the evening with my feet on the stone of the entryway. The night is full of the smell of winter and I can hear only my breath and the breath of my sisters around me. We have been dancing for so long that I no longer remember when we started. I only remember that the healers visited us with their tangy, herb-scented drink over and over again. Our training and our muscles took us past the point where we thought we might fall to the ground. They took us to the place where the spirit expands and the body keeps moving because it is willed to do so. To the place that is full of the music of what we are making together as we dance. It has been the most beautiful time of my life and there are tears in my eyes at the pleasure of being a part of this extended moment that spirals on and on as the night turns to day and back again.
Now we are still because we have called the Guardians from their places of rest. We are silent to give them space for their arrival. Our heads are lowered as we sense the change in the air that means they are taking their places at the points of the triangle that surrounds and protects this sacred spot. At each point is a high stone carved for them to stand upon as they look out from the night and towards what will happen here tomorrow as the golden smile of the sun opens to the new day and the new time ahead.
I begin to feel the places where my bare feet have been hitting the flat surfaces of the stones over and over as I spun round and round in time with the others dancing beside me. Together our feet beat out the rhythm we danced to and sang with in a circle of increasing energy that fed itself over and over again as we built it up. I have seen the feet of other dancers in other years, and I know how bruised mine will be tomorrow. But tonight I feel only joy that I gave my body’s movements and my song to this working.
Sweat is rapidly cooling as it pours down my back. Now that I have stopped moving, I am starting to feel the muscles in my arms that have been upraised since it was the time of the night before we began to dance. They are shaking like I am a blade of grass in the wind. I look out of the corner of my eye to see if the others have lowered their embrace of the starry sky. I see that they have not. This is my first time joining in the dance. I am proud of the strength of my young body and do not want to be the first to give in to the shaking that is starting to move through me now that I am no longer stirring the energy of attraction and desire that has brought the Guardians to us.
We dance because we love beauty. Every one of my sisters and I adore the slow, careful move of the arms, the short, staccato steps of the feet, the undulating curves of the body. Each of us has spent many years, all of our young lives, watching and listening to the fish, the birds, the trees, the streams and everything around us that moves so that we can learn from each movement how to make our dance more powerful. The dance grows in power as our people grow in number. It also grows with the world around us as it changes day by day and season by season. If we moved the same way tonight as we did this time last year, the dance would not work. We would be out of step with the larger dance around us and the Guardians would notice. They might not come as we call them, and that would be a terrible thing for our people.
We dance because we are beauty. Every one of us has been chosen by our people because we embody the power and wonder of our Mother in the curve of our hips, in the shape of our fingers, in the flash of our eyes, in the dark waves of our hair. We were dedicated by our parents to live this life apart from all others so that we could do what we have done tonight. Every day, since before each of us can remember, we have trained to draw in more energy, to last longer, to move with greater precision.
It is a life of ordeal and pain. All of us here in the dance have healed from deep blisters, strained arms and sometimes even broken bones or torn joints. We are the fortunate ones. Some do not make it to the place where I now stand because their bodies are not able to do what I have done to get here. They find along the way that it is too much for them to live like this. Some of them take this with grace and find other places in the temple, or they leave this temple and join another sisterhood with a different goal that does not require as much of the body.
Others do not let their dreams go so easily. We are held in high esteem by our people,and our families are continually blessed by our participation in the dances at the temple. It is a position many desire and few obtain. Five years ago I heard the terrible cry of the elders wailing a lament because one of my sisters jumped from the cliffs above the beach. She went like and arrow into the ocean and did not return.
For me and the others who now stand beside and around me, pain is not the only sensation. For us, this is also a life of ecstatic joy. Every day our movements are a little easier, a little faster, a little more fluid. We seek to embody the depth of wells, the laughter of streams, the rush of the rain as it comes again after a long absence. When this happens, smiles light the path we move across and we shine out into the world so brightly it is said the caretakers of the mountain shrines at the other side of the valley by the two hills can see us. We are the callers of the Guardians and the language we cry out to them with is the language of our bodies in dance. What we do is essential to the survival of our people. We are beloved by all around us. Our sisters become healers when they are too old to dance as we do this night and take care of those who do the stirring so that each year our calls will be heard. I have never known anything else but this life. I have never wanted anything else either.
I remember this and my arms stay high above my head in the gesture that calls to the sky where the three stars shine in the triangle that mirrors the one formed by the three high stones where the Guardians come to rest. It is the first step in preparing for the arrival of Therasia. Tomorrow it will be her face that smiles the smile of the sun. But I will not be part of that ritual. It is for another sisterhood to welcome her once again into our lives. My place is out here in the darkness, dressed in the skins of the three animals sacred to the Guardians. I am one of those who prepare the way.
Part of my training was learning to hunt each of the three animals. I started with the stag because I was born in the woodlands down lower on the mountain. My people came from his forest, so I started by seeking his prize. After I had learned to listen and to find what I sought, I moved higher up to search for the goat. That one took three years to find. Once the skin of the goat hung next to that of the stag, I climbed even higher than where I now stand and hunted the Ibex, wily horned beast of the rocky highlands. The trails of sharp rock were much harder on my feet than on his hooves. Now there are three sets of horns on the part of the altar I am responsible for and my clothes have three kinds of fur.
I had forgotten that I was wearing anything during the dance, but hearing the sounds of the Guardians breathing above my own breath reminds me. I have eaten the flesh of their sacred animals and it has helped me grow strong. They bring water so that my people can live, so their sacred animals can live, and so the forest can live. They are part of me and part of my people. I never forget the fact of this connection.
The first Guardian is the Goat of Water Stones. He was born from the she-goat who lives at the top of the mountain overlooking the sea. On the day he was born, the flat stone where his mother birthed him split in half and water flowed out of it and down the mountain. Through his favor we are fortunate to have the water of springs where the moss grows soft and green. When we see a gentle wall of moss, we know we are looking at clean water that is safe to drink from. His brother is the Stag of the River where the water winds down through the forest and brings life to the roots of trees and the wide grasslands in the bottom of the valley. This is the land where my family comes from, so we have always had a special love for the Stag of the River.
The third Guardian is the most difficult to find. Our ancestors used to go out to the cliff where it overhangs the place that the deep water carved from it before anyone can remember. It is a high, sloped cliff that is ochre in color. The bottom layer where the water carved it out is darker than the rest. Many snakes live in the cracks between these dark stones. Below them is a deep pool that is all that remains of the lake that used to be here. Before we learned to call the Guardians by dancing, our ancestors would take their shining black stones and long pounding rocks out to this place.
They would stand at the base of the cliff where the lake used to be. They would use the tools they carried with them to make the Rain Sound that would call the Star Ibex down from where he lives on top of his pyramid that is higher up than anyone I know has ever climbed. Our ancestors would speak with him and ask him to bring the rain.
Now we call all three of the Horned Ones of the Stars at once with our dance. But the story of the Rain Sound remains because we need to remember it was not always this easy. It stays in our memories in case we need to call him using it sometime in the future.
All three Guardians are standing at their points on the triangle surrounding our temple. They have not spoken to us yet, but they have come. We know this because the air around us changes when they arrive. There is no way to describe it other than to say it is the feeling of their presence.
The elders begin walking out to them to listen for messages they may have chosen to share with us. They walk carefully. It is forbidden to approach the stones where the Guardians arrive until they take their places. An old story tells how this was learned when our ancestors first started using the dance to call them. The first year this was done, an elder waited on each stone to welcome them to the new way of speaking with us. As they arrived, each Guardian killed the waiting elder. Then they left.
There followed a winter without rain. Many of our people did not live to see the next year because there wasn’t enough food. Since that time, the elders wait just outside our dance and do not go up to the stones until they are occupied.
My sisters and I move into two lines to form a pathway that leads to the opening of the small temple inside the stones ahead of us. We have completed our task. Now it is our turn to stand and hold the space of protection as the seven Star Maidens begin the Dance of the Day. We walk silently in step into the sides of the small room that is at the heart of the temple. Our movement draws the path the Star Maidens will use to begin their part of the dance. Once we enter the temple, we sit carefully on the floor and wait. Attendants emerge from within the temple and hand each of us a sistrum made of wood with shells and pieces of copper strung between the open V of the body. We wait for the Star Maidens in silence.
We hear them before we see them. Each of them is covered in a dress of golden bells and is wearing wide bands of the same bells on their legs. They cannot take a step without bursting into music. Their dance is more delicate than ours. They float gently into the mouth of the darkness outside the temple. We raise our sistrums to welcome them and begin the rising and falling change that pours out the path for them to dance upon.
Everything about them is as small, bright and delicate as we are powerful and dark. Our people tend to have hair the color of the back of a cave and eyes that span the range of obsidian colors from deep, shining browns to intensely sparkling black. But a few of us are born with lighter eyes, more delicate features, and an energy that sings a special song from somewhere else. From these are chosen the Star Maidens.
I learned to hunt for my clothes. Each of them learned to sew the tiny golden bells onto their skirts and make the bands for their ankles and arms. I learned to stand outside all night, no matter how cold. They learned to move in precise and perfect unison through the complexity of the dance that travels only a few body-lengths across this one stretch of floor. We are as different as can be, but our differences meet in this ritual that could not happen without either of our sisterhoods.
I raise my sistrum and my voice as they enter the doorway. Every three steps they stop and turn so that the light from the oil lamps that sit on every available flat surface around us can bounce off their gold in all directions. The light and their song cleanses us and cleanses the space. Then it reaches out through our personal connections to all of our families and all or our people.
Once the Star Maidens enter the temple, The representatives of the families who have not given a daughter to my sisterhood crowd in behind them. Not all of them will fit, so the rest stand outside to catch what they can. Inside the song is plentiful. There is enough to spill out into the night as far as there are ears to listen.
As the gilded dancers step and turn, they are sweeping away all things that might get in the way of Therasia’s coming tomorrow morning. It will take them some time to reach the throne at the end of the hall where one of our sister will be waiting tomorrow for the first shaft of light to fall across her body and bring the goddess into her. Then our sister will carry her out to the people who will be waiting in the courtyard to catch a glimpse of her face and to hear the mystery of her voice. The sister will stop at the edge of the depression in the floor that will be filled with water. The light streaming into the doorway of the temple will fall on the water, the sister holding Therasia, and the eight other members of her sisterhood who will be standing behind her in their long skirts sewn with tiny golden plates. They will reflect the rays back out through the doorway as the sister holding the goddess begins the song. The people in the courtyard will receive an explosion of light and a fountain of song.
But I am not part of that moment. I am here supporting the Star Maidens as a witness to their dance, and to receive the blessings that come from doing so. I see them arrive at the first step to the throne. The room is full of incense and the flicker of small flames. I can see the light of what we have done together this night traveling out from here to all of our people. Tonight I feel the darkness holds it gently and allows it a safe passage to join our people’s dreams.
The music and the dance stops as the Star Maidens lay fresh green herbs onto the throne. I do not know which plant they have gathered for this purpose, but I don’t think I will ever forget its scent. The moment the herbs touch the throne, the Star Maidens turn as one and face us with radiant smiles and upraised arms, hands angle outwards. The sistrums fall silent.
We cry out to announce their success. The cry is taken up by those in the temple behind us, who quickly pass it to those waiting outside. We are ready.
We stand in the still moment when the darkness is letting go. Around us we can hear the heavy, tired breathing of the dancers who have brought this time into our lives. They have been embracing the sky for three days and nights to prepare the way for what and who we are here to witness. I can’t see them, but I hear the slow release as they allow their bodies to lie back on the stones in the courtyard near where we are standing. The footsteps of the Medicine Mistress and her helpers are the only sound that indicates movement. They walk across the stillness to bring the healing drink for the dancers. The smell of it reaches my nostrils. With its arrival come the memories of every climb up the mountain path under the stars and every morning in the cold and dark when I have stood here with everyone I know, waiting. Sometimes it rained in the night and sometimes there were winds that whispered of ice. But every year of my life we have climbed through he longest night to be here in the darkness before morning.
When I was four and thought that I could understand everything there is to know, I asked anyone who had time for a question how long our people had been climbing the mountain on this day. I got more smiles than answers, but the answers I did get told me that even my second oldest grandmother didn’t know for sure how long we had been climbing this path. By the time I was five, I had formed the opinion that we had been making this trek up the mountain for as long as we had been here.
There were a few stories that my very oldest grandmother told around the fire when I was very little that included another place that was different from this one, so I knew that we had not always been here. That place had more mountains and the sea was not part of those stories. There were also several animals there that didn’t live here. In one story there was a kind of sacred tree that I had never seen. As my very oldest grandmother told the stories, I would sit close to her near the fire and stare wide-eyed towards her as she described the mountains and how dry the valleys below them were. I understood that our people had to leave that place and come to this one because of the dryness. As she told hers stories, she seemed to become many different people and many different ages. Then at the end she would go back to just being one person and one age. It was the most interesting thing I had ever seen.
My very oldest grandmother became an ancestor when I was three. One of my aunts held me while her sons carried my very oldest grandmother out of our home on a long bed made of small trees. Since that was before I was four and started asking that particular question, I was never able to find out what she had to say about how long we had been climbing the mountain.
The smell of the healing drink is like no other smell. It is sharp and sour, with a spicy, earthy aroma of herbs that nobody uses to cook with. Only the Medicine Mistress knows the origin of those scents, but all of us carry them with us, layer upon layer. A deposit of memories contained in a smell for each year we have been alive. Each of us has stood here in the darkness and waited since we were a squirming bundle in our mother’s arms. Before that our mothers stood here and waited while we wiggled in their bellies.
The smell of the drink served by the Medicine Mistress is the smell of the beginning of the yearly renewal that is the reason we are all here. The dancers have been embracing the sky and talking to the stars for three days and night so that we can have this moment. They lead a life that I can only imagine from the little pieces of stories of them that my parents tell. One of my aunts is a dancer, but I have never seen her. I hear my father talk about his sister now and then. Her name is Agranona, and she is well-known for her beauty and power.
At least that is what my father says. His face shines when he speaks of here and I can see that he is very proud to have her in our family. I imagine that one of the rough, exhausted breathing sounds I hear in the darkness is her. I am 9 years old. I know that she has been dancing in the temple longer than I have been alive.
To me, dancing is an exciting and wonderful thing that I do whenever I can. To have a temple dancer as an aunt is something I am very proud of too. They are the ones who give their entire lives to preparing for these dark, cold mornings so that all of us who live in the cluster of homes in the valley below can have lives full of blessings. The other children who do not have relatives living in the cave temple here on the mountain also know about my aunt. I am small for my age, but sometimes they treat my like I am big because my aunt Agranona is a dancer here under the stars.
I know from stories that I have heard from the older children who are about to become men and women that what my aunt does is very dangerous. They never tell me the details, but I can see in their faces that something scares them a little when they speak of the dancers.
I listen to the sound of the Medicine Mistress’s feet as she passes by me. Her footfalls are careful and measured as her bare toes touch the stones. I hear the rustle of her skirts as she turns and heads towards one of the dancers behind me. Maybe she is going to bring the healing drink that will start the process of restoring my aunt from her difficult ritual. I have heard that sometimes the dancers do not get up after the ritual we are waiting for begins. I wonder if they are carried away on a bed made out of trees like my very oldest grandmother was.
Though I do not know her and have never seen her, I want my aunt to get up again, healthy and strong so that she can dance the future into our lives again next year and I can be proud of her for another year. I decide that because she is so beautiful and full of power, that the Medicine Mistress will definitely bring her the drink herself. That means that she will not have to worry about getting up, because everyone knows the Medicine Mistress is a great healer. Soon I hear the sound of the dancers taking the drinks from the Medicine Mistress and her helpers. Some of them cough and spit as they take the first sip. Others murmur quiet words of gratitude. I hear the sound of the women bringing the drinks helping some of the dancers raise themselves up from the ground. A tiny hint of the deepest blue creeps into the sky. The family to my right is complaining about the cold. They live three houses away from my family, and they are always complaining about something. If my aunt can dance for three days and three nights, I can stand in the cold for a few more minutes. I do not complain.
Instead, I focus my attention on the mountain in front of us. We are standing on a small plane that leads up to the opening of a cave. Large, flat stones cover most of the space. There are some small areas between some of them where the short grasses and a few other plants are growing. My left foot is on something slightly scratchy and my right foot is on a cool, smooth stone. The areas covered entirely by stones are used by the dancers. All of us stand to the sides of where they have been dancing. Some of us stand on stones, some on grass and some have feet on both at the same time. We are out at the edge, up close to the front near the mouth of the cave that I can’t see because it is dark. The blue in the sky is spreading, and I am starting to see steam rising up from the people closest to me as they breathe. It sparkles in a way where I am not quite sure that I am seeing anything at all.
There are small buildings outside the cave that have something to do with the temple. I see the women of the temple coming and going from them sometimes when I have been up in the mountains with my father when we go looking for the stones that we fashion into tools. He is an expert flint knapper, and I am beginning to learn. We often travel far from our home to find the best stones. The main path out of our village goes near the cave temple. I am very curious when we are in site of it because we only visit it once a year and I want to know what happens there when we are not waiting in the dark for the door in the mountain to open. The last time I walked the path I saw that the door was covered with the skins of three different animals. There were two women walking downhill from it carrying baskets. One of them was tall and slender. The other was short and broad-shouldered like my mother. They were smiling and laughing. Right now I can’t see the door at all. I know where it is because I know that we are all facing it. Soon I start to hear the deep, echoing sound of throaty chanting. One of the mysteries about this ritual is that every year I hear the chanting and every year I do not find out whose voice it comes from. The sounds seem to rumble out through the stones below me. There is no way any of the women I have met or heard speak could make such a low sound. Perhaps the temple women are different than regular women, but I don’t think even they could make a sound like this. I question whether even my father could make it. He is taller than most and his voice is very deep, but I don’t think it can rumble a stone. At least I have never heard him make a sound that caused what was under my feet to shiver like this.
Sometimes I ask after the ritual if anyone knows who was chanting. They all say something different. Some people laugh at me at as if they think I am a silly little kid. Others act like they didn’t hear me and suddenly become busy with tying a knot or folding a piece of cloth. A few of them give me an answer. All of the answers include some kind of admonition never to look behind me when I am waiting in the dark and I hear the chanting. The people who answer look deep into my eyes, and I see things in their face that I don’t understand. Even the people who won’t answer me have some of the same things in their faces before they laugh or turn away. Now I feel the chanting through the soles of my feet. I feel like I am inside a giant throat that is humming. It makes the little hairs on my arms stand up. I do not look back or move as I stare intently at the darkness in front of me. I catch slight glimpses of something happening just outside of my peripheral vision. I start to think about turning my head to see what it is.
Then I hear my parents start to sing. My fathers big, deep voice sounds like a bear roaring gently. My mothers high, climbing voice reminds me of swallows calling. I love it when they sing together because it feels like the whole forest is happy when they do it. Soon all of the people standing with us outside the cave are singing too. It is a song made of words that we don’t use in everyday life. Even though I have heard it every year since I was born, the words do not stay with me. I look around and see that the other children are also silent.
All of us know that this song is something we will learn when we become men and women, but not before that time. It is part of the magic of living long enough the be able to start families of our own. Instead we begin to sway back and forth as our parents sing their song. I love the words even though I do not understand them. Some of them sound almost like words I know. Others sound more like the words animals use to speak to each other.
A long blast that sounds like a hunting horn, but much bigger rings out across the song. I look up and notice that the sky has a pale pink edge to it now. My back is towards the two hills. The same is true for everyone else in the flat area in front of the cave. We won’t see the source of the light that is coming, only the results of its arrival.
After the horn blast, all the voices fall silent. We hear a sound coming from the cave, behind the skin-covered opening. It is the music of feet rhythmically stamping in an intricate dance step. Layered over the steps are the delicate sounds of bells ringing. I can hear from the way both of them are in perfect rhythm that the dancers in the cave must be wearing the bells. The beat starts out slow, almost too slow to bear. It is complex, but woven within its complexity there is a tiny double-step that reminds me of the first time I heard my sister’s heart beat when I held her after she was born. I heard a tiny sound that I didn’t understand and I looked down into her impossibly small face. She looked back at me with wide eyes the color of the sky. We stayed that way for longer than I could count, just looking at each other. Now I become aware of the tempo rising. It isn’t the sudden change of the rhythm that our circle dances sometimes use when one of us is about to jump or twirl. Instead, it is a gradual change that seems to push us forward like a wave pushes at the beach. At first it is hard to tell there has been a change. Then you are suddenly awash in the new sensation up to your neck because the change was much bigger than you were aware of.
The rhythm is so fast it feels like my heart can’t keep up. It echoes in the cave. Ripples of sound layer over and over themselves like the path a snake makes when swimming through water. It is all I can do not to jump and dance. My body cries out for movement. But I know that we are all standing in the courtyard to witness a change, not to make one ourselves. Our part in this dance is to give our attention and presence to what is about to happen. We must stay still because this is something that is bigger than anything we can bring into being with the magic of our individual movements. It is even bigger than anything we could do while working together.
At the moment the rhythm becomes absolutely unbearable and I know that I will have to dance anyway, even if it is forbidden, the circle of skins falls away from the door in the mountain. A blast of light shoots out of the cave. The dancing music stops and a voice of incomparable beauty flows out of the space behind the light. One single, haunting note that is too powerful for a human to sing washes over us and I burst into tears. Every year I try not to cry so that I can see what is happening, and every year I am overcome by the wonder of the moment that I am part of.
The note of the song holds itself in the air around us as other notes join it. They are bursting out of the mouth of the cave like a flock of birds at dawn. I know in the deepest places of my heart that the song coming from the light inside the cave is an answer to the song all of the parents were singing. It is the best answer, and answer more wonderful than anything we could have made ourselves. Light is streaming over our heads from behind us. 4-year-old me knows that his is because the two hills have decided to let it into the valley. They have made a gateway for the sun to rise and join us this morning. I know that if I turned around, I would see it. But I don’t turn around.
I stay facing the cave because there is light and song together coming from its mouth. This is what the dancers work for all of their lives, and this is what we stand in the dark to wait for every year. It is the moment where we join the light as it enters the gave and gives birth once again to the Mother of Light who is the reason we can move faster than a stone and speak sometimes with the voices of the Gods.
As long as we continue to be present here to sing our songs, do our dances, and give our attention where it is needed, she will come out from this cave on this day and give us the gift of her song that is within the light. The sun will rise between the two hills whether or not we are waiting in the courtyard, but the song of light will not be sung here in this cave unless we prepare for it and are present to hear it. It is our people’s duty to come here each year and participate in this mystery so that the song can be sung and the blessings can flow from it out into the valley below. They are blessings that are shared by all who live near this cave, whether they have soft skin and long hair like us, or feathers and fur like the birds and goats. When I hear the song, I know that we have done one of the most important things that we do in the world. I wipe the tears from my face. Crying is a gift because it lets me know I am truly here in the moment with the song. But it also gets in the way of seeing what is outside of me.
Once my face is dry enough that I can look around, I see that the faces of my parents, my sister, and even the family who complains are also damp. The song in the cave comes to an end, the valley is full of light, and I can see a trickle of water making its way out of the mouth of the cave. The Mother of Light has gone, but her gifts fill the world around me.
The Medicine Mistress and the dancers are gone from the courtyard. Temple women come out of the buildings at the mouth of the cave. They are carrying baskets just like the ones I saw two fo the carrying when I was walking the path with my father. The tall one motions for us to come to them. As we move forward, I catch a new set of odors. These are smells that I recognize even better than the scent of the healing drink. They are coming from smoked meats, goats’ milk cheese and pitchers of water with mint in it. There are probably sections of flat bread baked yesterday just before the night fell and maybe even some honey. I suddenly realize that I am very hungry.