It is late autumn, 2009. I am 30 years old and pregnant with my third baby. He dies during the early part of my second trimester and I give birth to him in my bathroom, on my own with only my husband as witness. The blood comes, welling up over my fingers and spilling from my body in clots the size of grapefruits. I feel myself losing consciousness and am unable to distinguish whether I am fainting or dying. As my mom drives me to the emergency room, I lie on the back seat, humming: “Woman am I. spirit am I. I am the infinite within my soul. I have no beginning and I have no end. All this I am,” so that my husband and mother will know I am still alive.
I do not die.
This crisis in my life and the complicated and dark walk through grief is a spiritual catalyst for me. A turning point in my understanding of myself, my purpose, my identity, and my spirituality.
It is my 31st birthday. May 3rd. My baby’s due date. I go to the labyrinth in my front yard alone and walk through my labor with him, remembering, releasing, letting go of the stored up body memory of his pregnancy. I am not pregnant with him anymore. I have given birth. This pregnancy is over. I walk the labyrinth singing and when I emerge, I make a formal pledge, a dedication of service and commitment to the Goddess. I do not yet identify myself verbally as a priestess, but this is where the vow of my heart begins.
I do not know at the time, but less than two weeks later, I discover I am in fact pregnant with my daughter, my precious treasure of a rainbow baby girl who is born into my own hands on my living room floor the next winter. As I greet her, I cry, “you’re alive! You’re alive! There’s nothing wrong with me!” and feel a wild, sweet relief and painful joy like I have never experienced before.
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Lore-master Kazi Khosnawas sits under an old walnut tree and tells a story.
Eight generations ago, before the time of Shuragali, Kalasha women wore black beads from Peshawar, but now they favor red beads. Here is why.
Shuragali was staying in the bashali, the Women's House, because she was just about to give birth, but Tiliwari lurked outside, seeking to devour her. (Tiliwari, a cruel being in the shape of a man covered with hair, his mouth red with blood, preys upon pregnant and parturant women.) Shrewd Shuragali enticed him into the bashali and pushed him into the fire, where he burned to death. Ever since then Kalasha women have worn red beads in tribute to her courage and resourcefulness.
This is a local story, says lore-master Kazi Khosnawas. That's how we know it's true.
Though she is not as well-known as some of the other Minoan deities who made their way into the later Olympian pantheon, Eileithyia, the divine midwife and goddess of childbirth, was profoundly important to the ancient Cretans. There is some speculation that Eileithyia is actually her Minoan/pre-Greek name, which is unusual among the deities from Crete; we know most of them only from their later Greek epithets. In the Cretan dialect her name is Eleuthia (e-re-u-ti-ja in Linear B), which may connect her to Eleusis and the mystery religion celebrated there. A goddess of birth could certainly have a place in the transformational ceremonies of a mystery religion. The meaning of her name is disputed, though it may have its roots in the term ‘to bring’ or ‘to deliver,’ which would make sense for a goddess of childbirth, or possibly in the word for ‘to aid or relieve.’ She is sometimes depicted as multiples – the Eileithyias – rather than a single goddess, and sometimes as a dual goddess, one who either slows labor or speeds it, depending on her attitude toward the laboring woman. To me, her multiplicity links her to the oldest female deities such as the Fates and the Mothers (Meteres or Matrones).
The Minoans worshiped Eileithyia at a cave near Amnisos, the ancient port that served the city of Knossos. Archaeologists have found evidence of her continuous worship in that cave beginning in Neolithic times, so she is one of the oldest Minoan deities. According to legend, she was born in that cave, making her a part of the living landscape of the island, much like Rhea. In the cave archaeologists have found figurines of women in childbirth, nursing babies and in prayer postures. These votive offerings women made to this goddess tell us what they wanted from Eileithyia, which is pretty much the same thing pregnant women have always desired and still hope for: a safe and fast delivery of a healthy child who nurses strongly and grows well. In this way, Eileithyia ties us to our ancestors going back through the generations and the millennia....
There's something immensely powerful in women baring our bellies.
Quoted in The Woman's Belly Book, a woman describes what would happen when her daughter, as a toddler, met someone for the first time: She'd lift her shirt up and show them her belly.
Here's an adult, and global, example. "Get Your Belly Out" is a worldwide campaign that four women in the UK have launched to raise awareness of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), Crohn's disease, and colitis — all ways of naming the belly's deep distress. Using Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, supporters are posting photos of their bellies bared. They're also donating to research that will generate a cure for these gut-wrenching diseases.
I love how bellies bared for the camera make such an impact. They're saying: "Here I am, you can't ignore me now." When women bare bellies in a joint enterprise, the message is: "Here we are, you can't ignore us now."
“Here is your sacrament
Take. Eat. this is my body
this is real milk, thin, sweet, bluish,
which I give for the life of the world…
Here is your bread of life.
Here is the blood by which you live in me.”--Robin Morgan (in Life Prayers, p. 148)
“All religion is about the mystery of creation. If the mystery of birth is the origin of religion, it is women that we must look for the phenomenon that first made her aware of the unseen power…Women’s awe at her capacity to create life is the basis of mystery. Earliest religious images show pregnancy, rather than birth and nurturing, as the numinous or magical state” (Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor, The Great Cosmic Mother, p. 71)
I am working on a thesis project about birth as a spiritual experience. As I collect my resources, the quotes above keep running through my head. Birth as the original sacrament. Breastfeeding as the original communion. Blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone, women transmute blood into breath, into being, into life for others.
Abrahamic theology in its root mythology, sets up the male body as "normal" as well neatly includes the notion that there is a divine hierarchy in which men are above women in value, role, and power. It also twists reality, by asserting that women come from men’s bodies, rather than the other way around. This inversion didn’t begin with Christianity, it has roots in more ancient mythology as well. Connected to the conversion of women’s natural creative, divine-like powers of the womb into the originators of sin and corruption, we readily see the deliberate inversion of the womb of the Goddess into the head of the father in the gulping down of Metis by Zeus and the subsequent birth of Athena from his head. Patriarchal creation myths rely heavily on biologically non-normative masculine creation imagery. I really appreciated the brief note from Sjoo in The Great Cosmic Mother that, “In later Hindu mysticism the egg is identified as male generative energy. Whenever you come upon something like this, stop and ponder. If it is absurdly inorganic—male gods ‘brooding on the waters’ or ‘laying eggs’—then you know you are in the presence of an original Goddess cosmology stolen and displaced by later patriarchal scribes” (p. 56).