Caitlyn Jenner’s Goddess Tale

One of our nation’s most iconic young male athletes grew up and felt an inner imperative — perhaps a calling — to become a woman in the eyes of society. So he did. He transformed into she, now the nation’s most iconic transgender woman. As part of her debut, she posed for a photo shoot wearing a knockout of a spangly golden gown. Had she attended a ball in that dress, she surely would have lost one of her shoes on the way out.

Caitlyn Jenner’s version of the Cinderella story, like all the others, works with the motif of womanly beauty emerging from a situation where it was not allowed to shine. Hundreds if not thousands of variants of this tale appear around the world. Hers has a particular fascination, though. As a muscle-bound youth, Bruce dominated the Olympic Decathlon then waved the flag in triumph, a uniquely American version of the powerful young male. He showed us how we saw ourselves. Now, from the flat screens of reality tv, Caitlyn steps forward as a uniquely powerful American female. She shows us how we see ourselves today.

220px-Ares_Canope_Villa_Adriana_bRemember how incredibly beefcake Bruce was? He ran fast and he ran far, he jumped like crazy. He hurled beastly heavy things then roared with exultation. He demonstrated all the attributes of a superb foot soldier. In winning gold for the United States, he wore our national image of Ares, the Greek god of war. He let us imagine ourselves as the world’s greatest, strongest, fastest, best. His muscle was our might. At the same time, his youth was our immaturity. His soul roiled with secret misery. So did ours.

Imagine for a moment that you are the repressed energy / force of nature whom many call The Goddess. Let’s say you fume at the way you’ve been treated by jock jerks like Bruce Jenner over the millennia. You finally say, Enough, casting your divine glance around for someone to carry your message. What more perfect emissary could you find than Caitlyn? Who could embody a more potent image of your beauty and power than she who had once been the greatest male athlete in the world?

At sixty-five, the traditional age of retirement, Bruce withdrew so Caitlyn could emerge. With glamorous dresses, flawless hair, and brilliant make-up, she stepped perfectly and precisely into a mature image of Aphrodite. The Greek goddess of love and beauty, incidentally, took Ares as a lover. As Ares, Bruce waved the American flag. So did we. As Aphrodite, Caitlyn embodies beauty, authenticity, complexity. So can we.

popup The story also shows an image of a woman with decades of lived experience as a male athlete. Caitlyn carries that in her muscle memory, all the more powerfully because of the power of those muscles. She walks with the bodily knowledge of life and sex and sports as a champion man in the eyes of society. She now gathers into those same muscles the experience of being a woman in the eyes of society. Because of that, she lives and breathes the union of opposites. She joins Cinderella and Prince Charming within herself. She is Aphrodite and Ares, both at once. The Goddess and her Consort. Caitlyn offers us an image of soul totality, of wholeness. If her soul can do that, ours can too.

In that way her story might help move us past dualistic thinking. Sometimes we look around at this fabulous world, and we purse our lips and say, But is this good or is it bad? Is it light or is it dark? Male or female? Godly or infernal? Those are dualisms. Sometimes, on the other hand, we look around at this fabulous world and say, Wow, the Sky! Wow, the Ocean! Wow, Mountains! Wow, the Sun, the Moon, and the Stars! Wow, People! Love! War! Language! Everything is all just so amazing! This way sees the world as deeply, fundamentally sexy, hopelessly charged with charm and allure.

Monotheism tends toward the first way of thinking, polytheism toward the second. Monotheism loves to judge judge judge, to assign what it deems good-light-male-godly a place in heaven, to reject everything bad-dark-female-infernal and cast it down to hell. Monotheism banishes the sexiness of the world. For anyone associated with banished aspects, this state of affairs constitutes ongoing anguish, and depression so deep that it seems to try to reach down into the underworld and bring back all those lost elements of soul.

443px-Illustrations_to_Robert_Blair's_The_Grave,_object_15_The_Reunion_of_the_Soul_&_the_BodyCinderella stories imagine the soul emerging from that underworld and shining in its own authenticity. They celebrate the beauty of the true self finding its place in the world. Caitlyn Jenner seems to be doing exactly that. She transformed Olympic gold into a golden dress. She acts as an agent of The Goddess. In that capacity, she advocates for the rights and respect due to the transgender community, and for the inner lives of everyone. Her Goddess messages have to do with authenticity, the fluidity of external identity, our vast possibilities for transformation, and polytheistic acceptance and joy rather than monotheistic judgment. She presents us each with the ultimate mythological questions: What is your authenticity? What does your soul want to express? What transformations of body and consciousness would you embark upon, given that you, like Caitlyn, have the strength of the warrior and the courage of the lover?

The Secret Life of a Glass of Wine

Once upon a timeless time, on an island called Crete in the Mediterranean Sea, there lived a woman named Ariadne. One day she fell in love with a guy named Theseus and gave him a skein of string. Her idea was to have him unspool the string as he wound his way through a labyrinth to kill a monster at the center, after which he would turn around and follow the string back out to safety. Theseus was all for it even though concocting the scheme would have been far beyond his mental powers. Alas, when the deed was done, his valiant but scanty brain cells forgot to take Ariadne with him when he sailed back home to Athens.

Ariadne was standing on the beach, watching the ship disappear and wondering how she had fallen for such an outrageous airhead, when a gleaming chariot swooped down from the sky drawn by a pair of panthers. Holding the reins was no mere pin-up boy, preoccupied with flexing his mortal thews, but instead it was a god. It was Dionysus, one of the twelve great shining ones of the mighty Greek pantheon, and he was thrilled to find Ariadne. He leaped from the chariot, took her hands in both of his, and spoke in a voice that made her bones tingle. Come with me to Olympus, love. That’s where you belong. She replied, Are those panthers?? He gave her a wink and said, They’ll carry us to heaven if you’re willing. She cast one last glance over the empty ocean, turned back to the glory of Dionysus, and then she said, Yes.

256px-Pittoni_Bacchus_and_AriadneHe kissed her hands and off they went. As a wedding present he gave her a fabulous crown which he later turned into stars. As the story goes, they loved each other ever after. You heard that right. Dionysus was the only one of the Greek gods who was able to handle commitment. What’s more, there are those who believe that in earlier times, Ariadne was a powerful goddess in her own right. If that’s the case, the story shows Dionysus raising the diminished goddess back to her rightful status. He’s also the god who gave us the gift of wine. So when you swirl a pinot noir in the belly of a wine glass, you’re swirling more than just a beverage. You’re swirling the spirit of Dionysus.

Who exactly is this swirling spirit? Well, Dionysus relishes life. He’s fun and he’s intense, with a spontaneity and exuberance that the other gods lack. He’s playful, faithful, raucous, ebullient. And remember, he’s immortal, so all his traits have divine proportions and nothing about him is bounded by time. We’re talking about spontaneity so powerful that it’s a religious experience, exuberance so profound as to become holy, and playfulness so deep as to render the passage of hours irrelevant. Dionysus can lift our moribund moods with his sacred zest, the way he lifted Ariadne.

Wine, however, like Dionysus, is strong, and it’s complex. It’s not a beverage for quenching thirst. It’s an elixir that demands respect. The right amount is an infusion of joy, but too much is a plunge into oblivion and regret. Wine can heighten celebration, stimulate conversation, and deepen friendship, but it can also deaden feelings, darken depression, and damage relationships. Remember the panthers who drew the chariot? Harnessed, they speed the journey of the soul. Unchecked, they can kill. Dionysus demonstrates the knack of harnessing.

vino A glass of wine is a living thing, in the literal, biological sense, animated by the microorganisms that fermented the juice. It’s also a living thing in the senses of the imagination, exactly the way Dionysus is, so it doesn’t matter whether you actually drink wine or not. The idea alone honors his spirit and makes it easy to imagine partaking of life with the same enthusiasm as the shining one who cherishes and champions the goddess.

So whether the glass in your hand is literal, imaginal, or maybe even both at once, look into those jeweled tones. Inhale the bouquet. Swirl the wine until it’s dizzy, but most of all, listen. Can you hear the sacred question posed, to you and you alone? Can you hear the invitation? If you’re willing, if you say Yes, then lift the glass. Sip that spirit into yourself and savor the liquid epiphany, because the true gift of Dionysus is that he can take us all to heaven anytime we let him.

“By manifesting the sacred…”

“But for those to whom a stone reveals itself as sacred, its immediate reality is transmuted into a supernatural reality. In other words, for those who have a religious experience all nature is capable of revealing itself as cosmic sacrality. The cosmos in its entirety can become a hierophany.”

— Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, page 12

Viewer’s Guide to Into the Woods, FAQ

Q: I want to file charges against this movie for story abuse.
A: Uh-oh, what happened? Better start at the beginning.

Q: The film abducted four fairy tales — “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Cinderella,” “Rapunzel,” and “Jack and the Beanstalk.” It sucked the soul out of all of them, forced them to do its bidding, and left their undead corpses to wander the forest. That’s four counts each of story kidnapping and vampirism.
A: But isn’t entering the woods a time-honored way to show the process of transformation?

Q: Only if somebody transforms! At the end of this thing Cinderella says, “I actually enjoy cleaning sometimes.” I thought I was going to somersault backwards, right into the lap of the woman sitting behind me. Seriously, Cinderella enjoys cleaning? Setting aside the obvious feminist commentary, the whole point of Cinderella is that she hates cleaning. If you’ve got a Cinderella who likes cleaning, and she is in a situation where she gets to do exactly that, you do not have a story! Furthermore, for transformation to happen, someone has to leave the woods eventually. This movie ends with the remaining characters still in the forest and sitting on a giant log, which is a fine metaphor for the piece of you-know-what we’re dealing with here.
A: Easy, kiddo. Just the facts, please. Maybe the filmmakers were having a harmless bit of fun with fairy tale tropes.

Q: Maybe, if harmless fun means draining the power out of some of the most luminous imagery in the fairy tale world. Red Riding Hood’s cloak, for instance, instead of vibrating with raw life force and the potential for creation that so often settles around the shoulders of a girl-turning-into-a-woman, is an incidental sleeveless jacket that Red hands over to the baker, just because why not. Rapunzel’s hair is nothing more than a length of rope, rather than the cascade of silken curls that shows how beauty and libido can burst forth when you try to imprison them. And the glass slipper is supposed to suggest transparency, destiny, and the miraculous aspect of walking one’s true path. Here it’s an opaque shoe that looks like somebody stopped by Payless to pick it up on the way home. Sure, there are a few overt, ham-handed metaphors — yes, the wolf is a sexual predator; yes, mothering can be overwhelming and crushing for a child (this movie has *giant* mommy issues, pun intended) — but not one of the metaphors points beyond itself to the great mystery from which it all rises. Also Captain Kirk staggers around half-drunk in all his scenes.
A: Oh come on, it was funny when he and the blond bohunk ripped their shirts open and sang the “We’re Awesome” song.

Q: It was called “Agony.”
A: So it was. …Nothing? Not even a smile?

Q: Fine, that scene was funny. But what about the random, pointless, emotionless deaths? When death means nothing, then life means nothing, and that right there is the worst possible lie to peddle. Stories are supposed to tell lies in order to tell the truth. This movie lies in order to lie. I’m telling you, this is flagrant disregard for magic and meaning not only in fairy tales, but also in life itself. In fact it’s worse than story abuse. This film is a crime against mythology.
A: All righty, that’s enough for an investigation. I’ll be honest with you, though — don’t expect a lot of follow-up. Our detectives are stretched pretty thin, and these jokers would plead out for a lesser charge, guaranteed. Probably something like negligent imagination, or petty fictionalizing. Maybe endangering the welfare of a plotline, but even that’s just a fine and a lecture from the judge.

Q: I’d like to prop their eyelids open with forks and make them watch “The Power of Myth” fifty times, back to back.
A: You work on that. Maybe the CIA can help. All I’m doing is filing the report.