COVID: THE PERFECT STORM IN TWO WORDS
Source: Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols & Sacred Secrets, Barbara Walker, Harper Collins, San Francisco, 1988 and Myths to Live By, Joseph Campbell, Bantam Books, New York, 1972. Supplementary detail provided by Encyclopaedia Britannica (printed version, 1973) : first published in 1768 ‘by A Society of Gentlemen in Scotland'
Dear London Mark:
The origin of where things start is my go-to modus operandi in life. So, let’s start there, at the elemental.
‘Breath’ is derived from one of the four elemental symbols found in the four hands of India’s Pre-Vedic Great Mother, Kali. This period is between 1500 and 800 BCE. Pre-Vedic literature of the Vedas is an early form of Sanskrit, our primordial ‘language’ - what we use today. Your comment to me that no advertising agency in the world could come up with the phrase, “I Can’t Breathe” is the quintessential corollary.
As the story goes, Kali invented the ‘sounds’ of Sanskrit letters, and from these created the primal mantras that brought the universe into being. The sounds are classified as, LA = Earth, VA = Water, YA = Air and RA = Fire. See where I am going with this? MA, by the way means both ‘the mother and ‘intelligence.’ You can’t make this stuﬀ up, right?
Further, The Goddess of the Mahanirvana Tantra, mingled the four elements to create life from flesh (earth), blood (water), breath (air) and fire (vital heat). By the way, this theory persisted all the way into Medieval European medicine, so that being a very broad timeline can be anywhere from Late Antiquity to Middle Ages, 5th to 15th centuries.
(As an aside, I’ve always been sublimely amused that the name, Sulaika, is Sanskrit, meaning ‘beautiful writer.’ The name comes from one of the last poems written by Johannes Goethe.)
Today we would say that ‘pneuma’ is the ancient Greek word for breath; soul. In mythology, however, we acknowledge ‘Pneuma’ as the Goddess of Breath. The muse, always female, brought the inspiration or ‘in-breath’ that gave seers and poets the power of understanding and creativity.
If we tip-toe into the pool of the Gnostic, all knowledge pre-dating the Christian era, we come face to face with stories we’ve known all our lives: Myths are public dreams. Dreams are private myths.
You’ll love this one: the familiar custom of placing a mirror before the face of a dying person is not to check for the cessation of breathing - which could be determined through other methods - but rather to magically catch the fugitive soul because mirrors were always accepted - in mythology - as soul-traps!
In other traditional beliefs passed on through word of mouth through generations, ’The Hall of Mirrors’ is known as another realm of the dead.
Mark, I could be getting into too much detail - but I am scholastically compelled to make comparisons between the matrilineal and patrilineal divisions in our understanding of ‘the life’. So here goes: take what works here, discard what doesn’t.
In another widespread tradition, it’s thought that a woman as, Dakini, Shati or Priestess should inhale the last breath of the dying person, to ensure his or her reconnection and eventual rebirth.
This was the original meaning of what male theologians later made diabolical as the ‘demon’s kiss of death’ - attributed in the New Testament to Judas delivering such a kiss in order to identify him to the Jews for his arrest. This breath, was then feared as a death bringing ritual as opposed to a ritual from the Goddess bringing favour and comfort. Unfortunately, she remained in song and story as many versions of ‘mother death’ such as Morrigan or Morgan LeFey - whose voice was heard in the wind. It was decreed that she collected souls in her magic mirror, with that breath of the dying. Slight digression, there, with Morgan LeFay, but you see how language can be diﬃcult, We can only marvel at the astute clarity of George Floyd’s ‘I Can’t Breathe.’
Mythology, as I am always saying, goes back several dance steps to the start. Flesh manufactured by a deity out of clay - with the breath to bring forth life through a female Goddess - the Sumerians called her Numa, for example - went through many cycles of myth before it reached the Judaeo- Christian Bible.
Breath has been nearly synonymous with soul or spirit long before Genesis 2:7. The concept dates back to the matriarchal theory that woman not only forms her child out of her own uterine blood, but also animates the child’s body with her own breath.
Behind this ancient theory, one can see the habit of gently blowing into the mouth of the newborn to initiate breathing, rather than spanking the infant upside down as most of us now in our 60s had happen to us!
‘Breath’ touches all cultures. Brahman fathers pretended to give their newborn children souls by breathing in their faces. Biblical scribes say, God ‘mothered’ Adam by breathing, ‘the breath of life’ into his nostrils. (See above, Gen. 2:7)
The Oriental concept for the Oversoul - Atman, as the breath of the world, Atmos - yes, where we get the cognate for atmosphere.
Hellenic, or Classical Greek Culture, said ‘air’ was Zeus himself, permeating all things by way of their continuous breathing.
Enthusiasm comes from the Greek - enthusiasmos which means the god within. In reference to Sars2-Covid19 - a true ‘Mess-Capade’ - creation seems to come from the need to express life. The only place I have any control and freedom is in what I create. Note the polarity of those two words - control and freedom - two themes that have personified and dominated this pandemic. Whether it will ever be found to be Orwellian in nature or just naturally nature’s way of levelling our lives, one thing is clear: As sudden as it was necessary — there’s that Mother (Nature?) again — this world will never be the same.
Life is a mystery and in creating - anything, life or art - we don’t know what that mystery is until we can look at it finished. Kierkegaard: ‘…life can only be understood backward; but it must be lived forwards.’
Talk about a journey where you have to ‘trust’ your self - your own breath. We don’t know what it means - life or creating — and we’re not supposed to… until maybe the very end.
But ‘the deepening’ of the last four months has shown me something as an artist and creator. We’re arrogant when when we think we know what we’re doing, when it’s intuition, that feeling of truth propels out. Remember, the talented Stephen Colbert at 5 the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2019 he said, you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head.
Life is about leaving. Leaving things behind. Like preconceived notions. Think Jackson Pollock with America # 1, his first drip-painting. He was drawn into creating this, by what, he did not know.
Don’t you love it? The morphing of the phrase, ‘Necessity is the Mother of Invention’ first ascribed to Plato (423 BCE) in his Republic to Frank Zappa in 1974 with the name of his band, Mothers of Invention, full circle to what I just wrote about Mother Nature in 2019.
That’s the thing about ‘art.’ Like the cartoon Heckle and Jeckle - the pair of anthropomorphic yellow-billed magpies from the 1940s that we watched in the 1960s - their familiar song rings true now: “Ya, never know where you’re goin’ till ya get there….”
But where you can, allow for the deepening: let art take your heart.
Note: from the author: A series of over two dozen collages will all soon be available on my website, TheStoryGoddess.ca as a result of that trusting place and the deepening in the Mess-capade.
June 13, 2020