Sibylline reflections on culture, the politics of culture, and spiritual philosophies, with women at the center. Veleda is an ancient Celtic title for a seeress, most famously applied to a revolutionary tribal prophetess of the Bructerii in upper Germania.
Going back to our roots
The question is, what are those roots? So many of us live in cultural exile as women, an exile imposed by the dominant religions, and we have been delving into our more distant heritages in search of a meaningful past. This process is a journey, along which our definitions and identifications shift as we go deeper.
I was part of the early feminist wave that reclaimed the witches, scooping that ancient word wycce up out of near-oblivion, and linking it back to women’s ceremony in an era before demonization. I found out, too, that wicca meant “male witch,” rather than being an archaic Saxon word for pagan tradition as a whole. So I opted out of using that name. But I loved learning about the Dutch cognate wickenrode, “witch’s rod,” meaning a divinatory wand, and finding an entire web of related words with animistic import. Over time I discovered other witch-names from various ethnic cultures, including veleda which belongs to a long and rich web of related Indo-European words. I reclaim its forms in both my Irish and Frisian heritages.
I’ve spent more than four decades trying to understand what was done to female spheres of power, spiritual leadership, the Divine in female form. How did we end up in a world so totally controlled by white men, by industrial, earth-raping corporations of a now-global empire? In college we were taught that male domination was a historical universal; there were no other options, and dissent on this point would not be brooked. Don’t forget, you’re being graded. Plus there are the other prestige hierarchies to think of. This situation has not improved, though exceptions exist.
Over the past 43 years I’ve found a whole lot of evidence that contradicts this basic dogma. Some is sociopolitical, showing that neither patrilineage nor nuclear families headed by a man nor all-male leadership paradigms are universal. That’s one doctrine falsified, right there. Another strong pattern in the cultural record is reverence for the female, whether as ancestor or Goddess or Spirit—as Earth, as red ochre, as vulva. (And no, that is not “essentialist”; it is embodiment, immanence, sacred Essence.)
And then there are the patterns I call female spheres of power. These tend to be interlocking in a way that overleaps today’s ruling cultural categorizations: spiritual ways of understanding economics (food distribution, gift exchange, clan relationships); or technologies (weaving, grain-grinding, pot-firing); or politics (female shamans or elders acting as community leaders).
One of these female spheres of power, in a great many cultures, is in the realm of spirit. Whether we call her medicine woman or priestess or any of the culturally specific names, she represents the most visible female leadership in any number of societies—even some of the patriarchal ones. So I’ve spent a lot of time studying, and more time tracking down, these female spiritual leaders. The way knowledge is organized in this society hasn’t made this easy. But I don’t give up easily.
Three years ago I began producing a video that would pull together the ancient images of female shamans, medicine women, oracles, banganga, wu, eem, and machi. The aim was to make what has been hidden visible, accessible, and to begin the conversation about female shamanic heritages. A lot of effort went into making this a truly global perspective. I spent countless hours searching out rock art from different parts of the world—like the great stone galleries of the Sahara, Australia, Utah, Baja California, Spain, and southern Africa—and digging to fill in areas where representational art was scarcer. Before I knew it, there was way too much material for a single 90-minute dvd. So it went to two discs.
The result is Woman Shaman: the Ancients I’m not going to describe it here; you can read for yourself, and view the trailers. I’d rather talk about why it was necessary to make this video. It addresses the gaping omission of women in most accounts of shamanism, ancient history, and of religion generally. It overthrows the presumption that archaic shamanism was a masculine preserve. All too often, I encounter an assumption that I’m reversing that claim, and saying that all ancient shamans were female. No: I’m just reclaiming a whole lotta ground that has been appropriated in the name of male supremacy.
Among the precious cultural records we need to know about are the ochre-painted ceremonial boat scenes on predynastic Egyptian vessels; the carved ivories of the Bering Strait and Nunavut (northern Canada); the ceramic art of Lambayeque, Veracruz, Moravia, and the inland delta of the Niger; Chinese and Japanese and Nigerian bronzes; the silverwork of Iran and pagan Russia; the Mexican codices and Pueblo kiva murals. All these have stories to tell, and they show us women: ceremonial leaders, shapeshifters, diviners, healers.
When it comes to authenticating spiritual traditions, there are a lot of pitfalls. There’s a risk of romanticizing, which can be a common reaction to the dominant culture’s disdain for Indigenous philosophy, without taking the time to understand that culture on its own terms. There is also the problem of cultural appropriation, especially in the service of new age marketing. Then too we still find ourselves in the process of overcoming engrained cultural hostility toward non-dominant religions, including Goddess veneration, or any ecstatic traditions, which all too often have gotten defined as blasphemous or demonic.
In looking past the usual staple of written records to visual cultural testimony, there are bound to be unknowables—often we don’t even know what language the people spoke. Among those unknowables, sometimes, is the question of whether we are looking at images of divinities, ancestors, or shamans. Or whether the beings depicted are meant to be female, male, trans or co-gendered—or whether gender was considered irrelevant.
My research showed a number of recurring patterns: staffs, rattles, drums, ceremonial fans, and mirrors—and ecstatic dance, shapeshifting, animal helpers, healing, and prophecy. To experience the beauty, power and wisdom of these spiritual legacies is medicine for the spirit, especially for the women who have been pushed down, marginalized, and silenced in the name of religion.
The female dimension of spiritual journey and transformative power has been denied for too long, in too many places. We are bringing it back, and claiming our ground, whatever cultural ground we come from. These most ancient spiritual ways have immense value—however far back, or deep, we have to go to recover our human birthright.
I’ll close with an excerpt from the conclusion of Woman Shaman:
“What I’ve tried to do here is to open up a view of the cultural treasures that have been obscured and denied, because they are female, Indigenous, non-Christian—or not European. Cultural gatekeepers screen out certain kinds of images and information, often unconsciously. Their omission of women has a tremendous impact. Even when significant evidence of female shamans exists in archaeology, the habitual focus on males acts as a filter that screens them from view. There is also a marked geographical and ethnic screening-out, the omission of entire regions outside the centers of political power, and exclusion of non-dominant peoples and cultures.
“This is not a final analysis but a starting point, for a mosaic that can be arranged in countless ways. It’s a process of re-collecting, comparison, connecting. Many realities remain to be brushed in and fleshed out. We’re approaching a planetary web of history and heritages, of meaning and power. Much more remains to be known, and told, and shown.
“But we need this knowledge; it is medicine for the spirit.”
©2013 Max Dashu
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