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Winnowing the Soul

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

I’ve been collecting wicker. Well, garbage-picking it actually. In my neighbourhood it’s gone out of style and so it ends up on the curb. And I can’t resist it: wicker hampers, baskets, bowls…nothing I need but everything I want. There is something enchanting about the weaving and wending, the writhing willow branches held in tension to create an object of beauty and use. I have to have it.


It’s intricacies are engaging to the eye, tempting to the touch. It is sturdy, but not solid: air and light flow through, keeping it fresh. It is Athena’s work, and the work of the women of Vinci, an Italian river town full of willows—their branches worked into baskets by the mother of the artist Leonardo, he who would never cease to be fascinated by the woven patterns in the purling of water, the braiding and coiling of hair, the endless interlacing of twining branches and decorative knot work. One can see this obsession working itself out even in his intricate inventions, full of winding ropes and springy slats held in tension. There is magic there, in the weave, in the willow.


In ancient Greece this magic was recognized in the liknon, an open-ended wickerwork winnow. Like so many things in the ancient world it was both ubiquitous and sacred. To shake the grain in the winnow so that the impurities surfaced was necessary work. And so was the winnowing and purifying of the soul which the liknon came to symbolize—a process to which the Greeks wisely devoted many mysteries. 


In reliefs and paintings, the Greek winnow is shown held over the head of veiled initiates. Because such purification was understood as the prerequisite for fertility, the liknon is also shown filled with fruit and carried in wedding processions as a charm for abundance. The liknon might also contain a phallus or a baby—references to the myth and mysteries of Dionysos Liknites—the infant in the winnow. 


This Dionysos was said to have been dismembered by Titans as a baby, his phallus or heart rescued by a goddess and placed in a covered liknon before being used to magically effect a second birth. (Similarly Isis is said to have collected the dismembered limbs of Osiris in a winnow before reconstituting him). Holder of body parts and babies, the liknon is a symbol of both making and unmaking, death and rebirth—the ultimate purification followed by the ultimate fertility. 


So is my wicker obsession really about my own need to winnow my soul? My psyche has certainly been harrowed—raked through by events like being fired and being dumped. But winnowing suggests what comes after—a kind of sifting and shaking of the personality to allow the deeper chaff to rise to the surface. What do I fear to see? What can I really believe about myself?


At times this winnowing has taken the form of spiritual practices—yoga or mindfulness meditation— that take me to a place where things just inevitably come up. How I fear judgment and how I judge. How nothing is ever enough for me. How I struggle to feel “real”. How much I fear and what I’ve sacrificed to that fear. 


Like the physical process of winnowing, this is lengthy work requiring patience and motivation. So often it’s easier just to skip it. At times, someone else has to shake the basket for me, mirroring back to me my own unconscious beliefs.


Seeing my glee in winning a factual argument, my youngest once crowed, with just a hint of sarcasm, “Because being right is fun and important!” There was a whole world of commentary there, forcing me to confront the effect of my preoccupations on those vulnerable to my example and judgment. I suddenly saw how it wasn’t about trying to prove my worth to some imagined audience. It was about how those around me might take the lesson that being right was more important than being kind or happy, that being right was prerequisite for my love.


At such times I cringe and I thank the gods for humbling me, continuing the process of purification by any and all means necessary. Because each winnowing frees up my life force, opens me, and makes my soul fertile. Because each shake of the liknon brings me closer to rebirth.

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Archer has been trying to make sense of religion since her parents first abandoned her at Sunday School in the 60s. She’s a mom, yoga teacher and repository of useless bits of information on ancient religion, spiritual practices and English grammar. Check out her column “Connections” in Witches and Pagans.


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