This year, as in other years, it’s happened a day or two before December 25, and now I’m scrambling to join the Christmas cheer. This is the story…
I’d recently finished reading Margaret Starbird‘s Magdalene’s Lost Legacy: Symbolic Numbers and the Sacred Union in Christianity. Another of her books about Mary Magdalene, The Woman with the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalen and the Holy Grail, was a major inspiration when I was writing The Woman’s Belly Book, so intrigue led me to read more of her work.
In Magdalene’s Lost Legacy, Starbird presents the system of number-coding called gematria, how it figures in the writings of early Christians, and what it means for understanding Mary Magdalene and the return of the Sacred Feminine to Western culture.
These subjects are, of course, intricate and deep. Here’s how I’ve rolled them into this year’s Christmas card — and how they’ve spiralled into the Source Energy, the pro-creative power, dwelling within our body’s center:
What’s gematria? The way I’m understanding it, gematria is an ancient practice that links mind to spirit by relating letters to the vast significance of number.
Greek and Hebrew alphabets imbue each letter with a numerical value. Summing the numbers assigned to each of the letters in a word reveals another number, another dimension of meaning, another connection to human experience.
The Greek word for “dove” is peristera, written περιστερα, with these numerical values:
These Greek letters spelling “dove” add to 801. The number 800 corresponds to the Greek omega (Ω); the number one corresponds to alpha (α). With gematria of 801, the dove is the “Alpha and Omega,” the unity of beginning and end. Reaching from first to last, it is completion, fulfillment.
What’s more, the sum of the numerals comprising 801 is 9, a trinity of threes, the epitome of three.
Three carries the significance of the circle, the unconditional acceptance that encompasses both this and that. Three enfolds dualities into one wholeness: the Sacred Marriage yields the Divine Child.
For the early Greeks, the dove signalled the presence of Aphrodite, embodiment of love and beauty — she who brings life, death, and peace to the world. Early Christians understood the dove to signify Sophia, Holy Wisdom; they later adopted the dove as sign of the Holy Spirit.
The gematria of “Holy Spirit” (το αγιον πνευμα) is 1080. That same number, its numerals adding to nine, is the measure of the moon‘s radius in miles. Given numbers one, eight, and nine, gematria links Holy Spirit with moon, goddess, Sophia, the feminine — and with the dove.
In this light, the dove (801) coming to rest upon Jesus’ shoulder at his baptism in the River Jordan heralds the descent of the Holy Spirit (1080) — Sophia — into his nature. Indeed, early Gnostic Christians understood Sophia to be incarnate in the dove sparking Mary’s pro-creative power to birth Jesus as the child of Holy Wisdom.
Pro-creative power, yes.
That’s what more or less fits into a Christmas greeting. For the illustration, I filled the dove with a pattern of Chinese spirals and sent her flying over a shrine in which doves perch atop three pillars. This miniature clay shrine, found in Knossos, Crete, dates to 2000 years before the birth of Jesus.
What about those pillars?
As the Rite for Reconsecrating Our Womanhood was developing, I called number 13 in this sequence of belly-energizing exercises “Stretch Up/Press Down,” describing its way of tracing a vertical axis. As I did with each of the 23 moves in the sequence, I paired this gesture with an ancient artifact conveying a sense of the Sacred Feminine. In this case, I paired the move with an image of pillar, recalling Sophia’s “pillars of wisdom”:
Wisdom has built her house,
She has hewn out her seven pillars…
— Proverbs 9:1
I made a clay replica of the three-pillar shrine presented in Elinor Gadon’s The Once and Future Goddess. (For more detail, see the color photograph of the original, displayed at Greece’s Heraklion Archaeological Museum, here.) I also sketched the shrine as a line drawing.
Still, pillars are powerful phallic emblems, and doves perched upon pillars show us something about the Sacred Marriage. Indeed, there’s a lot of Sacred Marriage going on this season:
The shaft of light at the dawn of winter solstice penetrating deep into the dark of Neolithic earthworks such as the tomb at Newgrange, County Meath, Ireland. The Hebrew Shekinha — the word’s Semitic root refers to birds nesting — partnering Yahweh. The virgin Mary partnering Deus. The prelude to Mary Magdalene, understood by early Gnostic Christians as an incarnation of Sophia, partnering Jesus.
Maybe next year I’ll be writing a post titled “Sex and the Santa Claus.”
Helen Gurley Brown, Sex and the Single Girl
Joseph Campbell, “The Mystery Number of the Goddess”in In All Her Names: Explorations of the Feminine in Divinity
Elinor Gadon, The Once and Future Goddess
Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess
Margaret Starbird, Magdalene’s Lost Legacy: Symbolic Numbers and the Sacred Union in Christianity
Barbara Walker, The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols & Sacred Objects
Barbara Walker, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets
Her name was already familiar to me. Since publishing The Woman’s Belly Book, I continue to delve into the body center’s role in every dimension of our well-being. When I was looking into the connection between soil depletion and our ability to replenish the gut bacteria so important to our bodymind well-being, I found Lindsay’s helpful blog post titled Eat Dirt.
Along with a gastroenterologist and a naturopath, Lindsay figures in Give thanks for beneficial gut bacteria and feed them well, my recently published article in Asheville’s weekly newspaper, the Mountain Xpress. “Our gut is a garden,” she says, and you can read her suggestions for cultivating that garden here and here.
Now settled in Mississippi, Lindsay lived north of Asheville for several years. I was curious about her connection to Western North Carolina and asked her: What influence has your time in this region made upon the ways you understand and address digestive health?
Her answer details a deepening relationship with the natural world:
I moved to Spring Creek, just outside of Hot Springs, in the Winter of 2009-10. I became the Retreat Manager at a 30-year-old silent, contemplate retreat center called Southern Dharma. While working there, I continued to deepen my interest and awareness around digestive health.
As the retreat manager, I took all of the basic enrollment information from retreat participants. One of the questions asked about food sensitivities or intolerances they had. I was really surprised by all of the various digestive issues people had and that further solidified my interest in digestive health.
After my time there, I worked on a farm near Max Patch for a year or so. I grew a good bit of my food and foraged for greens, berries, and mushrooms as well. Even though I had always had a garden, working with the soil and the land on this scale was eye-opening. I began to have quite a few insights into the nature of our digestive complaints and our disconnection with the basics of life. I began to see that soil work…was indeed…soul work.
Living in the mountains was simply mesmerizing. I charted and took note of what was in season and how that particular food or herb was relevant to health of the body at that time of year. I named certain seasonal phenomena and observed nature because there was no distractions and only time. For example, I started to call the fruiting season the “berry wave,” which was a steadily ripening flow of berries from mulberries in the early season to autumn olives in the very end of the season.
Basically, with the stark beauty of the Pisgah Forest, I began to see the impeccable timing of it all. Jessica Prentice’s book Full Moon Feast was in my possession and I read it for the third time while living there. Her book was about certain indigenous and traditional cultures that had named the thirteen cycles of the moon.
These names were also connected with seasonal phenomena of a particular bioregion, something I began to call Seasonal Intelligence. I even taught two on-line courses on this, using the framework of Traditional Chinese Medicine and their five seasons and related organ systems. The participants and I met on the phone each season so that I could present a basic framework of how to use food and herbs in a seasonal context.
Living in the mountains was a real boon to my understanding of natural cycles and my place in it all. I am forever grateful for the experience!
The Southeast Wise Women Herbal Conference, founded and directed by herbalist Corinna Wood, took place in Black Mountain, NC the weekend of October 2-4.
Charged with reporting rather than opinionizing, I’ve had to reign in my urge to editorialize. Given Asheville’s recent Waking Life scandal and our moment of conversation about rape culture, that was hard to do.
I’m hoping readers, including you, will take this opportunity to write letters to the editor, naming women’s empowerment as an essential ingredient in the recipe for moving beyond rape culture — a cultural evolution to benefit both men and women.
My longer piece references and quotes from Cynthia Bourgeault’s excellent The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity.
Drawing on what I learned while writing The Woman’s Belly Book: Finding Your True Center for More Energy, Confidence, and Pleasure, the longer piece also considers Mary Magdalene’s body-centered pro-creative power in relation to the sacred geometry of the Holy Grail.
I’m so grateful for the opportunity to contribute to On Being’s outstanding offerings!
Thanks to Maureen Corrigan and her excellent So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures, there’s another upsurge of interest in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel.
I’ve been seeing images of the book’s original cover on tote bags and t-shirts. In fact, I’d just finished an immersion — reading So We Read On and then The Great Gatsby — when I was browsing in the regional authors section at Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville, NC. Glancing down at the table there, I see a scrap of paperboard with the cover pictured here, complete with a cryptic “95 R” jotted on the back.
As bellyqueen, and in The Woman’s Belly Book, I champion our body’s center as the energetic sourcepoint of our courage, confidence, intuition — and creativity. Fitzgerald’s words about writing Gatsby add his own evidence. After completing the novel, he recalled:
I’d dragged the great Gatsby out of the pit of my stomach….
After thoroughly considering the manuscript, Fitzgerald’s editor at Scribner, Max Perkins, sent the author a long letter. He wrote:
And all these things, the whole pathetic episode, you have given a place in time and space, … you have imparted a sort of sense of eternity. You once told me you were not a natural writer — my God! You have plainly mastered the craft, of course; but you needed far more than craftsmanship for this.
That’s the body’s center — the sourcepoint of our creative energy, our connection to transpersonal power.
[This piece is the original version of the article Mountain Xpress posted here.]
The key to any successful enterprise is identifying a pressing need and filling it. Creating Aurora Studio & Gallery, Lori Greenberg has done just that, adding dedication and loving kindness into the mix.
Working at a local crisis stabilization and detox facility, Greenberg observed women and men arriving for treatment. She saw a homeless man clasping his only belongings, his sketchbooks, to his chest. She saw a destitute woman passing her time in the day room sculpting figures from paper napkins, the only medium left to her. Greenberg understood: “Doing art is what kept her stable.”
“It just kept happening,” she says. “I’d see people who were artists, and they lived on the streets.”
Holding a master’s degree in counseling, Greenberg has worked in the field of human services for more than thirty years. Having led expressive arts programs in New England and knowing their therapeutic value, Greenberg thought, “This is Asheville. There must be some kind of art center that caters to folks struggling with mental health issues, addiction issues.”
From conceiving to creating
In 2010, she started looking for such a place. Finding none, by 2012 she had created Aurora Studio & Gallery. Aurora Studio equips both emerging and experienced artists to do their creative work in community, generating the mutual support that sustains their psychological well-being, social stability, and freedom from addiction.
The first classes took place in a West Asheville storefront with a core group of participants and in collaboration with local artists and healing arts instructors. “We’ve been doing classes ever since,” says Greenberg. “Because the feedback from the participants showed that people were really interested, and they kept the momentum going.”
The project has continued to attract participants through word of mouth as well as through the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Asheville Radical Mental Health Collective, psychotherapists, and physicians. Last June, Aurora moved to a downtown space, complete with utility sink and storage, donated by Susan Durrence of Mountain Lights.
Infused with Greenberg’s enthusiasm, Aurora has become a magnet for generosity. Other well-wishers — including Jonas Gerard, BlackBird Frame & Art, Roots Hummus, and Everyone Cooks — have donated paint and paintbrushes, canvases, lunchtime snacks, and special event refreshments. BlackBird Frame & Art volunteered framing for all the pieces in Aurora’s recent group show at the Asheville Area Arts Council.
“The Arts Council and executive director Kitty Love have been very supportive of this project,” says Greenberg. She rates Aurora’s group show at AAAC’s Grove Arcade Gallery as an impressive achievement: “It’s a feather in our cap.”
“Before the show’s opening reception,” she adds, “the group gathered in a circle to share their intentions for the evening, gain strength from each other, and calm any pre-show jitters. Several artists expressed their gratitude for being in Aurora. Another said we could all hold our heads up and be proud of the beautiful show we created.”
Since 2013, Arts2People — under the auspices of former and current directors Jen Gordon and Aaron Johnstone — has acted as Aurora’s fiscal sponsor. This arrangement has allowed Greenberg to bypass recruiting and managing a board of directors, time-consuming tasks for a woman who keeps Aurora going entirely on a volunteer basis.
From creating to sustaining
Greenberg is not by nature a night owl. But to make her daylight hours available for organizing classes, shopping for supplies, and scheduling visiting artists, she’s choosing to work the night shift full-time, thirty-four hours packed into three nights a week.
Working nights is exhausting, Greenberg admits. “There are times when I think I can’t do Aurora anymore,” she says. “But I’ve wanted to see how far I could take it. And I love every one of the folks that we have. I have deep admiration for them. It’s been a great group of people and it’s wonderful to see everybody grow as a person in different ways.”
She describes how Aurora has contributed to people’s lives: “Some people were artists and they could sit and create art, but they were isolated. And they didn’t have any support. What they really needed was the human connection around something that’s important to them, and to make friends. Other people were doing art because it helped them in their recovery but they didn’t have a lot of training. Those people are gaining support and they’re getting to learn new skills.”
Each weekly four-hour class in Aurora’s eight-week sessions begins with a brief check-in and continues with painting, sketching, or hand-building with clay. A visiting artist may offer instruction. At the end of each class, participants reflect on their creative process.
“It’s not art therapy,” explains Greenberg. “It’s a supportive community in which people do art.”
From the outset, participants have created guidelines that ensure the group will be a supportive experience. Participants agree, for example to come to class sober; be nonjudgmental about each other and each other’s art; respect their own and each other’s feelings; keep confidentiality; follow through with their prescribed mental health treatment; recognize that art is a process, not a destination — and have fun.
Now numbering ten artists, Aurora Studio is at capacity. Over time, says Greenberg, conversations develop regarding difficult subjects such as medication and relapse prevention. With a bigger group, she says, “it would lose its intimacy, the ability for people to feel comfortable sharing.”
When Greenberg has interviewed prospective participants, she hasn’t asked for their diagnosis. “I let people define their needs for themselves when they apply. I look for how somebody might need extra support because they’re not able to attain some of their personal goals for either their art or their social functioning. Aurora helps give them that extra boost.”
Greenberg describes her perspective on mental health: “My take on a lot of mental health issues is that there have been multiple traumas in people’s lives, which then manifest in how they learn and how they relate to the world.”
“We all go through moments,” she continues. “For many of us there are moments — times of upheaval, anxiety, depression. But for most of these folks, it’s been more than a moment. It’s been several years, if not their whole lives, that they’ve not been quite able to function in everyday life in a way that meets their own needs.”
From sustaining to transforming
Safety and friendship are themes that thread through participants’ comments about their experience with Aurora. One woman recalls: “The environment fostered a feeling of friendship and unity among everybody. So I felt like I could express myself freely without being afraid of judgment.”
Another reports: “Since I’ve been in this program I’ve been able to start another art class that is for the general population. As far as I know, I’m the only person in that class who’s recovering.” She’s been able to talk to the class leader and ask for what she’s needed because she practiced communicating her needs at Aurora. The studio became her “jumping off point” into the larger world.
“We came together as a group of strangers,” reflects another woman, “and we ended up as friends, people that you look forward to working with. We concentrated on the work but it was an experience where you knew that people wanted you to succeed. People were encouraging, supportive. It gave me courage and confidence. And I did things I didn’t think I could do.”
Greenberg describes the value of making art in community: “When everyone comes together, there’s energy for witnessing, listening, understanding, respecting. That allows people to turn their attention toward creating, and that’s restorative.”
At the moment, Aurora depends entirely upon a team of volunteers to keep going. Greenberg envisions that continuing community support will allow the program to stabilize and grow. Additional funding, for example, will enable Aurora to offer classes several times each week and serve more artists moving beyond mental illness, addiction, and homelessness.
Greenberg sees herself as an organizer, not an artist. “But I’ve had a huge amount of fun,” she says, “not only having a vision and seeing it come to life but also doing the classes, because lots of times I’ll participate. That’s been great fun for me. So while I’m doing the work of getting this organized, I have a time to play, too.”
Aurora’s recent AAAC opening featured a message from Rita Zoey Chin, author of Let the Tornado Come. A writer and poet, Chin has applied her creative process to resolving the panic attacks that used to paralyze her. She said — and Aurora Studio artists would agree — “Art can save your life.”
An enterprise that provides people in distress a way to save their lives — to bring “something beautiful out of something very dark,” as Greenberg says — is meeting a pressing need indeed.
No, it’s not a pretty phrase. But it’s a fitting name for a set of institutions and ideas that steal away women’s pro-creative power through physical violence, social shaming, and economic exploitation.
In The Woman’s Belly Book, I say pro-creative power is our body-centered power to promote creation — through childbirth, yes, and through life-affirming ways of being in every dimension.
Creating a cultural paradigm beyond rape is what Kim Duckett’s about. How does she do it?
“I take women to Hel and back,” she says.
Her vehicle for visiting goddess Hel is reviewing — and rewriting — the ancient Greek myth of Persephone’s descent.
“Stories lead to the heart of healing,” my recent article in the Mountain Xpress, Asheville’s weekly newspaper, features Kim and her work.
For whatever reason, the newspaper has shied away from relating the horrific aspects of the conventional myth to current events in the culture at large. I invite you to read the article here and add your comments online. Tell us: How is revising the myth of Persephone important for you, your family?
Here’s some background:
Kim Duckett, a.k.a. Woman Who Follows Her Heart, is an ordained Priestess and a shamanic ritualist rooted in the mountains of western North Carolina.
Holding a doctorate in Transpersonal and Spiritual Psychology with a focus on Feminist Theory, she’s taught women’s studies in college and university settings for thirty years. She also co-founded the rape crisis center, now known as Our Voice, that’s been serving the region’s women and men for more than forty years.
The Wheel of the Year as an Earth-Based Spiritual Psychology for Women names Kim’s forthcoming book. Those words also name the teaching she offers to women as she travels throughout the nation.
Kim describes her teaching this way in the International Journal of Transpersonal Studies:
The Wheel of the Year as an earth-based psychology for women is inherently feminist and also based in transpersonal psychologies. Women explore the turning points, or holydays of the Wheel, on both spiritual and psychological levels through a wide range of modalities that engage body, mind, emotion, and spirit.
The Wheel of the Year focuses the first year of Kim’s Sacred Mystery School, a three-year curriculum in women’s spirituality. With the arrival of the autumn equinox, she invites women taking part in Mystery School to update and personalize the myth of Persephone.
Kim knows, as famed mythologist Joseph Campbell did, that myths validate and preserve a culture’s social and moral order. She knows, as Campbell did, that myths must change to keep pace with changing times. “Myths are teaching stories,” she says. “So it’s important to ask: What are they teaching?”
She begins by presenting women with the conventional version of the myth: Hades snatches maiden Persephone, rapes her, and imprisons her in his underworld realm.
Does this scenario sound familiar? So many of us have similar stories.
Finally breaking through to national awareness with New York magazine’s July cover story, scores of women have alleged that comedian Bill Cosby did Hades over decades, holding young women captive in an “underworld realm” of drug-induced loss of consciousness. They’ve alleged that agents of various cultural institutions aided and protected Cosby, keeping his actions secret, allowing him to continue.
Drawing on Charlene Spretnak’s research, reported in Lost Goddesses of Early Greece, Kim inspires women to recognize alternatives to the Greek myth as it’s usually told, including versions pre-dating the ones validating rape culture.
In a circle of mutual support, expressing themselves through dance, poetry, and drama, women create their own versions of the myth. In these, Persephone chooses to descend.
Each woman acknowledges, as Persephone does, her need to deepen. She chooses to move inward, to re-member and re-collect herself, to be with her inner wisdom. In the deep, dark, womb-like realm of goddess Hel she finds a place for rest and replenishment. She meets not Hades but Hecate, the wise woman within.
And then she emerges, refreshed. She embodies greater clarity, more vitality, and a renewed sense of purpose. She returns with a mythic guide to her own well-being.
What’s more: Women rewriting the myth of Persephone as woman-affirming stories of descent and return build the foundations for a generative, peaceable culture of life.
How do you rewrite the myth of Persephone? I invite you to add your own story, your own comments, here.
A Year and A Day Sacred Mystery School for Women
Lost Goddesses of Early Greece