Monday, October 20, 2014

Let’s Talk About Mary

During one of my visits to domkyrkan (the beautiful church-museum hybrid) I circled slowly through the displays of old, religious art that fills the area immediately behind the altar, at the foot of the immense crucifix hanging from the ceiling on thick cables. Several of these statues depict women. None of them have plaques giving the art pieces names or acknowledging artists (whose names have probably been long since forgotten anyway) or providing any sort of explanation of who or what is being depicted. So a few of the statues I encountered may very well have been depictions of female saints who were not Mary the Virgin Mother. One, contained in one of the tomb rooms along with the tomb of King Gustav Vasa and his two wives could possibly be a depiction of a queen holding her child though, given the style of the depiction, I sincerely doubt that.

There are depictions all over domkyrkan of these saintly women. I was quite drawn to them, especially the wooden carvings in their glass cases on the ground. To some degree I’d been thinking about the Virgin Mary for a while, off in the murky corners of my mind. My patron goddess, a Norse goddess who potentially has Germanic roots reaching much farther into the past than her occurrence in the Nordic myths, has been strangely encouraging of my developing a relationship with the Christian God. That’s been…well…odd, to say the least. It seems counter-intuitive to how I’ve experienced the relationships between varying religions, the people of different religions and, I thought, the gods of different religions, up until this point.

I suppose some part of my brain was trying to make sense of this occurrence and, I must admit, in my inability to make sense of it (due to pre-existing prejudices that had grown stubbornly and deeply rooted) I approached the conundrum in a very The Mists of Avalon kind of way: [SPOILERS!] in the end of that novel the protagonist, Morgaine, finds herself in a cloister living among nuns. She witnesses her fellow women praying to the Virgin Mary and recognizes this figure as an aspect of the goddess on whose behalf she’s been fighting throughout the entirety of the novel, and in this moment she is finally able to make peace with herself and the Christian religion she’s stood so vehemently (and sometimes violently) against.
There being no plaques I can't tell you what exactly is happening in this piece.
What the image of women carrying goblets filled with flames reminded me of
was the importance of women in the early church, as the keepers of private homes
where believers congregated before there was a "proper" church.

It is a moving and poignant moment in the book and I feel like it’s something which does have relevance in a broader spiritual context, but I’m not sure that it’s necessarily applicable in this specific moment. While I believe that all of the gods we come into contact with, interact with, worship and pray to or work with originate from one, untouchable, unnamable and unknowable divine source, I also believe that all of these divine entities are unique and powerful in their own rights. The idea that, in this circumstance, I was attempting to make sense of what was being asked of me by trying to imagine that my deity was one-in-the-same as one of the important figures in Christianity, or perhaps that they were reflections of each other, seemed and still seems disrespectful of the inherent uniqueness, power and beauty of each figure and their own deeply moving stories.

Mary and my goddess Sigyn are both unique figures, independent of each other and with their own powerful and important stories to tell and through those stories lessons to teach. Nonetheless, I don’t think it’s wrong to at least recognize the things their stories have in common – rather, it seems important to recognize what similarities occur in different spiritual paths rather than focusing so exclusively on what makes us different. Focusing on what makes us different can and often does force people to assert that building a relationship is impossible. It is the similarities which allows us to see where bridges can be built rather than burned, and it was these similarities that struck me as I orbited the wooden statues in domkyrkan.

If you are unfamiliar with Norse mythology, Sigyn is the second/younger wife to the trickster god Loki, a jötunn of mixed allegiances and a reputation both for getting the Aesir (such as Odin, Thor, Frigga, etc.) into trouble and, conversely, getting them out of trouble. Sigyn is also mother to His two sons, Narvi and Vali. As a part of Loki’s binding, which took place in the wake of His crashing one of the gods’ great parties and thoroughly insulting everyone at the table, Vali was turned into a wolf and Narvi was killed, his intestines enchanted and used to bind Loki.

This is the only time the surviving lore attests to Sigyn (or Her sons, for that matter): after Her son was killed and the other disappeared She stayed with Loki to hold a bowl above His head, catching the venom from a serpent secured there to temporarily alleviate Him of physical pain. Anything else is personal gnosis, be it unverified (UPG) or confirmed by the personal experiences of other practitioners (peer corroborated personal gnosis, or PCPG). It has always been my understanding that Sigyn was present for the death of Her son and the madness of the other. This is, however, attested to nowhere in the lore and so stands as UPG (to my knowledge not peer corroborated).
The New Testament attests to far more of Mary’s experience than does the surviving Norse lore of Sigyn’s – for instance it states in the text that Mary witnessed the death of her son: “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son!” (The King James Version, John 19:25-26)

Painting housed at the Uppsala Art Museum in Uppsala Castle
And behold him she did. In her book Mary: A Flesh and Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother, Lesley Hazleton paints a vivid picture of the mother Mary at the foot of the cross upon which her son hung, broken and bloodied and dying. She weeps, she screams, she fights to try to touch her son one last time, to try to save him from this particularly gruesome fate. The portrait she paints is, of course, speculation, as is much of the research-driven book, but it forces us to remember the soul-wrenching, overwhelming horror and sorrow of a mother who must watch her child die – must because she cannot turn away from him, for that would be to abandon him. (As an aside: though Mary is a very speculative book it is a very powerful book and definitely worth a read.)
Statue housed at Uppsala Art Museum in Uppsala Castle
Though we cannot know from the lore, I have always had the strong impression that Sigyn, too, could not and would not turn away from Her beloved sons in those last moments. It has always seemed clear that She was present – if Her children were in that situation, why, then, would She not be there as well, especially considering Her presence in the aftermath? Unless Her children were secreted away to the scene without Her knowledge, it seems unlikely – though, of course, this is speculation (as is often necessary in the practice of religions whose lore and traditions are fragmentary at best and often influenced by the Christian faith of those who wrote them down).

Though it is speculation it has always felt like truth, even before I met or actively worked with Sigyn, back when she was a shadow of a presence who came with working with and worshiping Loki. It struck me again as truth, and powerfully, as I walked through domkyrkan and looked upon the statues of Mary, be her depicted with the infant Jesus or empty handed but regal. I looked at her and I thought of her ordeal, but I also thought of Sigyn’s, and in that moment I didn’t think of the two as facets or reflections of each other, but rather as sisters – sisters in the way that those who have undergone great tragedy can only be understood by others who have undergone great tragedy. They both are mothers who witnessed the deaths of their children and went on to live.

Mary may well have taken comfort from the knowledge of her son’s resurrection: the Gospel of Matthew says that, at the empty tomb, an angel appeared to “Mary of Magdala and the other Mary” to inform them of the resurrection before Jesus himself appeared to them (Matt. 28:1-10) while the Gospel of Luke says that “The women who had accompanied him from Galilee” found the tomb empty and were visited by two angels who told them that Jesus was, once again, among the living. Luke goes on to name these women as “Mary of Magdala, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James…with the other women…” (Luke 23:55-56 and 24:1-11) Though Mary the mother of Jesus is not named among these, it is hard to imagine that she would not be among these “other women,” if she did witness his crucifixion as the Gospel of John states. While Mary was able to take comfort in her son’s resurrection and the community of women and apostles around her, Sigyn was able to take comfort in Her ability to provide relief to Her husband and, to some degree, in Loki Himself (again, according to my own perceptions and impressions).

It is obvious the great degree of difference which exists between the stories of Sigyn and Mary and the religions they inhabit, the landscapes and cultures they arose from and the people who passed on their stories. But perhaps those differences don’t necessarily require burned bridges between the two – anymore than burned bridges must necessarily exist between different factions in Norse paganism or paganism generally. Frigga, too, buried two sons (Baldr and his brother Hodr, another casualty of Loki’s mischief and the divides between the gods). She, too, understands what Sigyn must have experienced when she said goodbye to Vali and buried Narvi, just as Sigyn must be able to understand how Demeter must feel when she sends Persephone back to the Hades and the Underworld, just as she must be able to understand and empathize with the Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus.

Statue in Gamla Uppsala Kyrkan

Death is ever-present in every religion, even fertility religions and religions of rebirth and renewal – for these things wouldn’t be possible without the inevitability of death coming first. The two are so necessarily intertwined that many ancient fertility cults incorporated some form of sacrifice, sometimes human. With death comes the mourning of those left behind, and we can see this in the mythology of religions worldwide: our myths, not unlike the world we occupy, are filled with mourning mothers (and fathers, and brothers and sisters, and children and friends and lovers…)

So why burn bridges? Why erect impenetrable divides when, as we can see not only in so many mythologies but in so many very real histories (some of which are only a handful of decades past) it is so often these divides which bring us to our knees in mourning? Why not instead build bridges upon the similarities we find between ourselves? These are our similarities, our building blocks: our basic humanness, the inevitability with which we face death, the fact that if we’re still here in this moment then we are the ones who have been left behind by those who have already met death. Among these things, the differences we find among ourselves – the variety which colors humanity – are only insurmountable where we declare them to be, where our own stubbornness blocks us from reaching out and at least attempting basic, simple connection.

We don’t all have to walk hand-in-hand singing Kumbaya, nor must our gods necessarily walk hand-in-hand singing Kumbaya. But it seems so small and petty in the face of these two figures and the immensity of their grief and the strength with which they walked through it, perhaps to find comfort if not joy on the other side, and insist that they must, by virtue of their differences, stand in opposition.

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