Category Archives: OMG Mythology

California Dreaming

This semester one of my classes is called “Dreams, Visions, Myths,” and at our last class we learned about how dreams were “incubated,” or induced, in ancient Greece in temples of Asclepius, the god of healing. People visited these temples hoping to be cured of various ailments. After a ritual bath and sacrifice, they were led into the temple to a stone slab where they would sleep that night. The hope was to receive a healing dream and leave the temple cured the following morning. An inscription at an Asclepieium in Africa reads, “Go in good, come out better.” (See Healing Dream and Ritual by C.A. Meier for more.)

So I was sitting there in class, taking notes as fast as I could because it was all so fantastic, and next thing I knew the teacher said, “We’re going to incubate some dreams now and see what happens.” She had us push back all the chairs, and we each got a blanket to spread out on the floor, just like in kindergarten. Then she turned out the lights, and led us — single-file and silent — out the room by one door, around the building, and back into the room by another door. We lay down, each on our own blanket, and she talked us through a guided meditation where we were to imagine we were on stone slabs in a temple. Then she stopped talking, and the room was quiet for half an hour.

I lay there thinking, This is fun, but come on, are we really supposed to dream? In half an hour? Lying on a hardwood floor somewhere in California? And so on and so forth, and next thing I knew, right over the mental chatter, something happened. I don’t know whether to call it dream or vision or imagination, but it was definitely visual, it occurred in the realm of the inner eye, and it wasn’t consciously willed. Here’s how I scribbled it into my notebook right afterwards:

I’m in a dark area. Behind me someone reaches forward and hands me something. Without turning around I reach back and take it, like a baton in a relay race. But it’s not a baton, it’s a stoppered vial. I open it and a pale blue mist rushes up and takes the shape of a beautiful woman. She smiles at me, leans down, cradles my jaw with both hands, and kisses my lips. Then she envelops me, the mist is all around my body, then it flows in through my skin. I exhale into the vial, exhaling the pale blue mist. I put the stopper back on the vial, and hand it forward, to another hand, this one reaching back toward me out of the darkness.

In my memory, the mist tingled inside my body, and the blue woman was really happy to see me. It felt fantastic, and it was clear that it was to be shared. So, here you go. Yours can be the hand that receives the vial next, if you’re so inclined.

Another Reason to Love Joseph Campbell

From The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell:

The two worlds, the divine and the human, can be pictured only as distinct from each other–different as life and death, as day and night. … Nevertheless–and here is a great key to understanding myth and symbol–the two kingdoms are actually one. The realm of the gods is a forgotten dimension of the world we know. And the exploration of that dimension, either willingly or unwillingly, is the whole sense of the deed of the hero.

Oh yes. This is precisely why “realism” feels so flat to me: it willfully persists in forgetting about the sublime. Or worse, it pretends no such thing exists. Yuck. That’s no way to live.

Goddesses and Southwest Airlines

I made it through the fall semester! My final papers had to be postmarked by December 27, a barbaric deadline about which I still harbor resentment. Because did I finish early so I could relax and enjoy the holidays? No. I was at the post office on the 27th with my three manila envelopes, and now the homework for winter semester has already begun. Before I get too busy, though, I want to tell you about an encounter I had with the goddess Kali.

First, some backstory. Last fall I studied several Hindu goddesses, including Kali, who is fearsome. Her skin is black, sometimes blue-black, and blood drips from her bared fangs. She has four arms. In one hand she brandishes a bloodied sword, and in the hand below that she holds a severed head. Another hand is raised in the “fear not” gesture, and another is extended, offering boons. They say she uses the sword to slay demons and to cut away whatever we don’t need, what holds us back, especially the ego nonsense symbolized by the severed head–all that thinky self-talk that paralyzes us. Kali is powerful and complex, and despite her alarming appearance, she is very much on our side.

Ok, so when I was in California for class last December, I thanked my Hindu Traditions professor for recommending one particular book about goddesses. He said, “I’m glad you like it. Which goddesses have you met so far?” I said, “Durga and Lakshmi, and I’m about to get acquainted with Kali.” A few days later, after the session was over, I boarded the plane from Los Angeles to Chicago. It was a Southwest flight, which meant open seating, and by some December miracle the flight wasn’t full. I took an aisle seat in a row with an empty middle seat, and an African-American woman sitting by the window. The woman wore a red and black tunic with a tribal-looking design. We said hello-hello, and isn’t it nice to have all this space? I offered her some of the cashews I was just opening. She said No thanks, she’d been eating almonds and was sick of them. I said, Well if you get hungry for cashews you know where they are. Then we left each other alone. I had some papers to read, and when I looked up, a few hours had gone by.

The woman and I started chatting again. She told me she was on her way home from Maui. She’d been on a pilgrimage to a healing site on top of a mountain, a place where a rainforest waterfall spilled down through seven successive pools, and the energy was electric. She’d also been to a small temple where a Hindu monk and his wife lived, and she’d participated in a ritual called Ho’oponopono. She taught me a little of it. She said, “Say, ‘I forgive myself, I accept myself, I love myself, I bless myself.'” So I said all that with her. She kept going, telling me about how she’d been swimming in the ocean with whales and how angry she was about the dolphins dying in Florida, until finally, when the flight was nearly over, I said, “What do you do? What’s your work?” She said she was a natural healer. I thought, Huh, how bout that. Then on an impulse I said, “My name’s Joanna. What’s your name?” She said, “Kali.”

I gasped, and I’m sure my face showed my shock. Evidently in reply, she said, “Yeah, like the goddess.” Then I managed to speak, and out it all babbled, about how I was studying Hindu goddesses and was just about to read about Kali. The woman nodded, entirely unsurprised, and said, “I wondered if there wasn’t something going on when you sat down and were so friendly.” I spluttered something else, still staring in open astonishment at her Kali-esque skin and the Kali colors of her tunic, and she said, “Yeah, and it’s extra weird, because I was named after my great-grandmother Kali, who was a slave, and delivered me, and there wasn’t even a k-sound in her tribal language.” I spluttered further, and she said, “You know what, I’m going to put your name in the ocean.” At that I finally put a sentence together and said, “I’m going to hold your name in my heart!”

Then the flight was over. When I got home I opened the book about goddesses, and sure enough, I had stopped reading on the first page of the Kali chapter, the page with those four letters blazoned across the top, K-A-L-I. Kali, the goddess who was a woman who was a goddess. She sat next to me for four hours. She’s a healer. She put my name in the ocean. I’ll bet anything she’d do the same for you. All you have to do is ask.

My Kind of Physics

From How Philosophers Saved Myths: Allegorical Interpretation and Classical Mythology, by Luc Brisson, trans. by Catherine Tihanyi:

Love, as any philosopher knew, is the principle that enables the cohesion of the elements with each other so as to form the universe.

That’s my favorite sentence in the whole book. Maybe my favorite sentence ever.

Take That, Genesis

From Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, by Heinrich Zimmer:

When the divine life substance is about to put forth the universe, the cosmic waters grow a thousand-petaled lotus of pure gold, radiant as the sun. This is the door or gate, the opening or mouth, of the womb of the universe.

Now there’s a creation image with a sense of aesthetics! And vitality! And friendliness toward the feminine! I feel refreshed.

“Required Reading” for a “Homework Assignment”

From The Upanishads: The Wisdom of the Hindu Mystics, trans. Prabhavananda & Manchester:

This moon is honey for all beings, and all beings are honey for this moon. The intelligent, immortal being, the soul of this moon, and the intelligent, immortal being, the soul in the individual being–each is honey to the other.

Do you think my teachers will mind if all my papers are about how much I love every single thing we read? By the way, that honey moon will be full on Tuesday, August 20. You can get details at this handy-dandy US Naval Observatory page.