The Goddess on the Interstate

A few weeks ago, driving through the forested hills of northern Pennsylvania, I saw a bumper sticker that read, “Not Mother Earth, It Was Father God.” I almost choked on my double latte.

The night before that drive, a man in Las Vegas had placed himself high in the sky with a cache of weapons and ammunition, looking down over a dancing mass of music fans through the mono-vision of a rifle scope. From that position as far as possible from Mother Earth, he rained down pain until raw red blood ran from hundreds of broken bodies. This was a country music festival. Not urban, not techno, but music of the country, music of the land. The shooter claimed dominion over the earth, as the Book of Genesis instructed him. He also lived out the western myth of male, militaristic monotheism: one and only one, high above the world, in charge of everyone, especially their deaths. A.k.a. Father God.

Queen of the Night, 2000-1900 BCE,
British Musuem

The bumper sticker explicitly tried to deny the sacred nature of Earth. Mother Earth, the sticker claimed, is not divine (and therefore neither are earthly mothers, nor women). Only the father is a god (and therefore normal fathers are divine and so, by extension, are men). The sticker sought to silence, erase, and diminish Mother Earth, the better to continue Father God’s agenda of exploitation, ownership, and coercion. This is what fake news actually looks like: monstrous lies on which monsters build hollow, violent power structures. The same hollowness yawns inside Harvey Weinstein and all his ilk and inside our sexual predator president. Surely it echoed inside the Las Vegas shooter.

I hope it goes without saying that no penis is any more or less sacred than any uterus. Both channel life forces. Both represent the powers of creation and creativity. Yet the Father God thunders that no one should have any other gods before him, that no one shall see beauty in any graven images, meaning sacred statues of other divinities. No one gets attention except himself. Everyone else, according to his twisted ego, is false, wrong, nasty, bad.

In reality, however, life balances perfectly between the intertwined magic of earth’s soil and water, and the sacred sky energies of sun and air. We are equally the children of Mother Earth Goddess and Father Sky God. Neither one alone could make the family of life. Neither one takes precedence.

Mistress of the Animals holding a lion in each hand, 700 BCE – 600 BCE,
British Museum

Mother Earth is true news, real news, solid news, up and down and all day long. She is an image of the fecundity and life-giving nature of Nature. She tempers the blind, racing madness of monotheism with her slow gestational transformations, her cyclical solutions, her abundance, her skill at weaving intricately complex and diverse ecosystems, and most of all her wisdom.

Gods and goddesses are not literal beings who patrol the clouds. They are citizens of the imaginal realm where they catalyze our mortal hearts and minds, helping us apprehend particular inflections of the divinity that streams into existence through all that is in every moment. The sacred cannot be reduced to any god or goddess, but all gods and goddesses show aspects of it. This can be extremely useful for living a more meaningful life, but it can be extremely dangerous when imbalances such as monotheism take over.

It wasn’t Mother Earth who gave us an obscene form of capitalism that despoils the planet and concentrates wealth in the bulging wallets of a tiny minority. That was Father God. It wasn’t Mother Earth who saddled us with technology addictions and the threat posed by artificial intelligence. That was Father God. It wasn’t Mother Earth who gave guns more rights to fire than people the right to stay alive, who grants far more money to the military than to education and healthcare combined. That, too, is Father God.

The bumper sticker had a pronounced defensive tone. Whoever attached it to their car must have felt that the old meme needed repeating, which suggests that its metaphor has weakened. That makes this a dangerous time, as the news makes plain every day, a time of spiritual crisis and transition. Unsavory characters exploit power vacuums such as this, including pussy-grabbing presidents who howl their lies on Twitter.

Cybele, mother of the gods, by Antonio Fantuzzi (1537–45), 1543,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

This is a time to imagine the Goddess, to call on her, to serve her. She will outlast the hollowness of monotheism. She came into being long before it did, and she’ll still be here long after we all fade from memory’s last memory. Even the longest human life lasts only a flicker for her. We rise from her soil and from her soul, we look around in astonishment and grandiosity, then we sink back into our source.

Unquestioned myths and scriptures work on us below the surface, without our conscious awareness. We act them out blindly. But when we engage with them, when we meet them fresh and see past their hypnotic familiarity, we can change them. We can re-create them.

Genesis opens with the conceit that a lone Father God created the world and humankind. It denies, devalues, and de-legitimatizes Mother Earth from page one. But the Father God doesn’t seem up to the task of single parenting. In his fury at Adam, he spits blunt words like bullets: “For dust thou art,” the bully god sneers, “and unto dust shalt thou return.” That venom would fit neatly into a presidential tweet, in its character count, its violence, its lie, and its strategy of shaming.

The Goddess, however, might address Adam differently. Sometime when you find yourself near trees or river or ocean or hills, listen close for her quiet voice: For living earth thou art, my child. To living earth shalt thou return.

“Whether or not our rigid mature minds reject play…”

“Whether or not our rigid mature minds reject play, everything is still the display of the natural secret essence of the elements. If we are serious and rigid, our subtle elements become congested and cannot reflect this wisdom display. If our mind is calm and vast and playful, we can always recognize this essence display.”

— Thinley Norbu, Magic Dance: The Display of the Self-Nature of the Five Wisdom Dakinis

True Myth and Fake News

When my mythologist tribe visits town, I like to pour Chardonnay from a vineyard called True Myth. The wine goes down like nectar, a goddess adorns the label, and the name always makes us laugh, because we share the conviction that no, myth is not literally true, but yes oh yes, myth is truly true, deeply true, soul-true. In other words, myth tells lies to tell the truth. Myth reveals its truth not in the literal facts of its images, but as their meaning cloaked in metaphor.

For example, who is the goddess on the wine label? The bottle makes no overt introductions, but the prominent word “true” reminds me of Aletheia, the ancient Greek goddess of truth. Aletheia doesn’t embody only the kind of truth regarding facts and data; she also personifies disclosure or revelations. Aletheia reveals what had been hidden.

The Greeks mythologized lies, on the other hand, as the Pseudologoi, or False Words — a nasty horde born of Eris, the goddess of strife. It’s easy to imagine the Pseudologoi as stinging winged beasties, especially these days when they swarm from the mouths of the president and his apologists. But there’s also a different tale that tells of a single goddess named Pseudologos. As the story goes, when Prometheus was making Aletheia in his workshop — the same divine studio in which he fashioned humankind — Zeus summoned Prometheus away from his work. Prometheus’s ambitious assistant Dolus, whose name means trickery or deception, set about making a copy of Aletheia. The copy’s features and radiance matched Aletheia’s exactly, except that Dolus ran out clay before he could make the copy’s feet. When Prometheus came bursting back in, he stopped in his tracks, breathless at the copy’s likeness to his own work and greedy to garner the glory for creating both goddesses. He hurried them into his magic kiln, and when they came out, glowing hot from the fire of the gods, Prometheus breathed the spark of immortality into both of them. They both exhaled, and then Aletheia walked with slow, steady, measured steps, but Pseudologos could only stand still, because her legs ended in stumps.

Prometheus Creating Humankind while Athena Looks On, Louvre Museum

Have we not all faced difficulty in distinguishing truth from lies, and plagiarism from originality? Even clever Prometheus fell for the trick, and we are but muddy mortals. And notice how the blurring goes both ways: lies can seem so much like truth, and truth can seem so much like lies. Both are sculpted from the same clay. Both are equally alluring. But Pseudologos has no feet. She has no firm foundation in reality, and she cannot move on her own. She needs the aid of accomplices. Isn’t it interesting that her existence springs from an excess of ambition, in both Dolus and Prometheus?

Aletheia, on the other hand, has an independent existence. She stands on strong, supple feet. The solid earth supports her. She doesn’t back down. Careful and conscious, she neither rushes to judgment nor jumps to conclusions.

See how mythic images raise the ante on everyday metaphor? Magical, fantastic, and full of wonder, myth bursts with gods, goddesses, and creation on cosmic scales. Mythic imagery doesn’t just tell lies to tell the truth; it tells fabulous lies, huge lies, amazing lies.

Fake news works on a similar principle. It, too, tells big lies, and its lies also have some deeper meaning. For example, consider the slander that circulated about Hillary Clinton and the pizzeria during last year’s election season. The facts of the story were patently ridiculous, but the deeper meaning that many of us ignored — myself included — was that Clinton had a real image problem, and that some voters loathed her with a malicious, toxic furor. Then there is the story about Donald Trump’s visit to Russia, and the prostitutes peeing in a Moscow hotel room. The meaning of the story is that many people believe the president to be a dirty conman who treats women like commodities and is in bed with the Russians, financially and politically. But we don’t have all the evidence yet. This story might turn out to contain literal truth as well, aka true news.

Fake news scratches the age-old itch of myth — a deep desire to believe the unbelievable, to participate in magic, to thrill along with a flight of imagination. But fake news is not true myth. The truths of fake news are passing, ephemeral things, as fleeting as the headlines, and their lies are designed to manipulate.

Our slippery times speak in slippery terms: alternative facts, reality tv, infotainment, misinformation, post-truth. Each is a euphemism for the ugly fact that money-mongers lie to gain, preserve, and augment their power. Fake news is a powerful weapon in their arsenal. Fake news lies to drain us of our power. Myth lies to remind us of our power, here and now and always.

Truth, Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (1593)
Our power begins in recognizing and discerning between Aletheia and Pseudologos. Does a story arise from someone’s ambition? Who stands to to gain from it, and how? Does it stand on its own, or does it require co-conspirators? Is it a near copy of the truth but missing a crucial detail? Does the story rush itself? Does it lurch away from scrutiny and race ahead to tell more false words?

Myth tells lies to tell the truth. It can even tell lies to tell the truth about telling lies. Maybe Aletheia and Pseudologos aren’t so much two distinct beings, but two ends of a gradating spectrum. Maybe the more truth a story contains, the stronger its feet grow, the further it can stride. Maybe the more falsehood a story contains, the more its feet thin into mist and blow away.

On the True Myth wine bottle, we can’t see the goddess’s feet, but the label proclaims, Her Secret Is Patience. May Aletheia share more secrets with us. May her strength and beauty walk with us, along with her patience and wisdom.

“To change how we see things takes falling in love…”

“To change how we see things takes falling in love. Then the same becomes altogether different. Like love, a shift of sight can be redemptive–not in the religious sense of saving the soul for heaven, but in a more pragmatic sense. As at a redemption center, you get something back for what you had misperceived as merely worthless.”

– James Hillman, The Soul’s Code

It Matters More Now

Before the recent election, the Dalai Lama took to the pages of the New York Times to address America’s political tumult in an article called Behind Our Anxiety, the Fear of Being Unneeded. We need to feel needed, he says. We need not to feel superfluous.

In other words, we need to feel like we matter.

Couple Riding, by Wassily Kandinsky
Couple Riding, by Wassily Kandinsky

When the article came out, I still floated like a dumb puppy on a cloud of complacent, liberal optimism. I thought it would be easy to accomplish what His Holiness suggests: treat people like they matter. And when you treat someone like they matter, that matters! Yay. Then the election happened, and too many people learned that they don’t matter enough to too many other people.

Mattering implies great value. The word “matter” comes from the same root as “mother,” the Latin mater. Many traditions see the earth as Mother — the nourishing womb from which we emerge, the source which sustains us through our lives.

Here’s what I believe: everything that mattered before the election matters even more now.

#BlackLivesMatter has it right. If you are treated like your life doesn’t matter, claim the truth of your mattering. If someone else is treated like they don’t matter, help them claim that same truth.

Earth - Pacific Ocean, nasa.gov
Earth – Pacific Ocean, nasa.gov

You matter. You are matter. You’re matter and energy. Einstein broke the astounding news that matter and energy are different forms of each other. Energy is super-duper active matter, and it’s exactly what the world needs. In other words, the world needs you.

Hear that clarion call, like bugles and bells? It says live like it matters, especially now, because it does.