CHAPTER SEVEN: ONES
THE TRITON SHELL
THE ESSENTIAL ELEMENT
The Neolithic deity to whom human sacrifices were offered was almost invariably female, the vestigial remnants of which tradition account for the veiled associations of Pasiphaë and Ariadne with the tribute of Athenian maidens and youths ostensibly sacrificed to the Minotaur. The historical question of woman's position in Minoan society has often been raised because of the famous bare-breasted snake goddess figurines, or on the evidence of frescoes from the late Palatial Period showing female figures participating in such rituals as "bull- leaping." This general issue has been addressed by Margaret Ehrenberg in her superbly intelligent study, Women in Prehistory:
Whatever conclusions about the position of Minoan women, even high-status women, can be drawn from the frescoes, it seems highly dubious that they can be backed up by the architectural evidence of the palaces themselves....So, what can we say positively about the position of women in Minoan society? Can any inferences about the kinship pattern, whether it was matrilineal or patrilineal, be drawn? Does the evidence [which she describes] indicate that Minoan Crete might have been a matriarchal society, as has been suggested both by some of the earliest scholars and by recent feminists? ...[A]s regards matriarchy...I have also tried to show not only how little evidence there is in any living or documented society, but also how difficult it would be to prove from archaeological data. Even if we may hypothesize that women, or at least women of higher status, may have had a better deal in Minoan Crete than in many other later societies, it is impossible to argue that they actually held power. Equally, however, as in most other prehistoric societies, there is no evidence that men held power at the expense of women.
[Ehrenberg, Women in Prehistory, p. 117 f.]
If the institution of kingship arrived in Crete around 2000 BCE--and as it, together with a system of war-lords, is attested in the later Linear B records--we should not expect to find much evidence of a matriarchy in the sense of RULE by women. The religious acclaim paid to female goddesses, however, may be quite another issue. Such a dislocation of power characterizes both medieval Mariology and classical Greek society (a thousand years after Knossos) when Olympus enjoyed some degree of gender parity, but not so the agora and polis.
This question of lineages leads us back to one of the most famous images created by Marcel Duchamp, his painting Nude Descending a Staircase (1912). One aspect of Duchamp's iconography that many at the time found disturbing was his irreverent depiction of the ideal nude from a nineteenth-century tradition of fine art and high culture coming DOWN from the pedestal. Women were, in fact, doing just this--coming down from the pedestal of patronizing indulgence and social hypocrisy--in order to take their place in the real world: with the campaigns for women's suffrage, the loosening of divorce procedures, sexual liberation, and the on-going disputes concerning equality in the workplace and freedom of choice with respect to bearing children. An elusive historical question remains, however, about WHEN Woman--whether the "Venus" of Laussel, the Virgin of Chartres, or Duchamp's Nude--first found herself on a pedestal to begin with. That could have occurred (so some may reason) when woman ceased to have real power in social institutions, which in Crete must have been (if ever) at least prior to 2000 BCE. The much later Greek myth of Europa's abduction and rape may reflect the turn of events on Crete with the arrival of Min/Minos and kingship, or the story may be an attempt to symbolize later Greek invasions. Then again, the extant version of the myth may not necessarily document these events, but instead represent an inverted reading of still earlier circumstances.
The original arrival of Europa on the island might well have been by her own command, for the way in which she is described as grasping the divine bull's right horn is profoundly reminiscent of the famous Perigordian bas-relief (from around 20,000 BCE), carved in the limestone of an overhanging rock shelter at Laussel, in the Dordogne region of southern France, featuring a bountiful naked woman marked with red ochre, holding a bull's (or bison's) horn in her right hand. As pointed out by Alexander Marshack, this horn is incised with thirteen clearly engraved vertical strokes--a number that most of the world's subsequent mythologies relate to the number of crescent moons ("horns") in a lunar year, as well as to the thirteen days from the appearance of the first crescent to the full moon. There in the caves, of course, she would have been recognized as the "Mistress of the Animals," the Paleolithic Goddess of the Hunt whose representions in ivory and stone dating from thousands of years before the invention of grain agriculture have been found all along the migration trail of the great wooly mammoth from the Atlantic Ocean to the plains of Russia.
[See, Alexander Marshack, The Roots of Civilization, pp. 333 ff.]
The carefully time-factored star chart of the ancient calendrical round may have been established, as some have theorized, around 6500 BCE. At that time the unmistakable, large scale celestial phenomenon of Gemini at the vernal equinox marked a sort of "time-zero" as one of the two possible times when the ecliptic would intersect the Milky Way; the other time would have been around 20,000 BCE when Saggitarius and the opposite side of the Milky Way were in a comparable position. Or again, the clear understanding of these vast processes may only have appeared somewhat later, together with formalization of the zodiac, say, around 4000 BCE. Then, the whole system could have been rationalized and read either backward or forward in time. Yet, even with the implied enormous, intervening spans of time, there is a great temptation to see in the prehistoric Laussel figure the same pre-Hellenic Moon-goddess of both Minoan and Mycenaean art,
riding triumphantly on the Sun-bull, her victim; the scene survives in eight moulded plaques of blue glass, found in the Mycenaean city of Midea. This seems to have been part of the fertility ritual [referred to by Athenaeas] during which Europa's May-garland was carried in procession.
[Graves, The Greek Myths, 58.3 (Volume I, p. 197).]
If there were sacrificed to the Moon-goddess males identified with the daily dying and reborn Sun, she may have thus transferred her dominion from the animal kingdom (as the archaic Goddess of the Hunt) to that of the vegetable. In this process some of her celestial symbolism shifted from the moon to the stars: the constellation Virgo came to represent the Celestial Mother and Daughter, the female deities known in classical Greece as Demeter--who also assumed the form of a Mare goddess--and Kore (or Persephone), the pair we equate more or less with Pasipha and Ariadne. Having once discovered the principle of the zodiac and the precession, it would have been an easy matter to assign appropriate significance to particular asterisms. The alpha lucida, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo, is called Spica, which means the ear of grain; it would have been in position behind the rising sun at the vernal equinox around 12,500 BCE--near the beginning of the last great Pleistocene Age ice melt, and reasonably contemporary with the energetic spread outward from the Fertile Crescent of early Neolithic livestock and grain domestication.
[For a survey of the topic and many illustrations see, Adele Getty, Goddess: Mother of Living Nature, Thames and Hudson, London (1990).]
One of the curiosities of Paleolithic cave art is the frequency with which the horse is represented. Purported explanations of the magnificent animal paintings from southern France and northern Spain as some mere form of hunting magic fail to account for the disparity between the numbers of animals of any one species in the paintings in comparison with the bones of that animal that suggest meal scraps. Reindeer and red deer apparently comprised such a large a portion of the diet that they may have been among the earliest of domesticated species; yet their images in Paleolithic art are rare. On the other hand, the horse is frequently shown in cave paintings, and is represented by other evidence, but there is scant evidence they were eaten.
It is certain that the horse was of tremendous cultural importance to the people in Western Europe during the Upper Palaeolithic--horse teeth and bones have been found carefully placed in Magdalenian hearths in a number of deep Pyrenean caves such as Labastide and Erberua, as well as near the hearths at the Magdalenian open-air camp of Princevent near Paris (despite the fact that reindeer account for almost 100% of this site's faunal remains). At Duruthy (Landes), the carved horses were found in a kind of "horse sanctuary" dated to the twelfth millennium BC; the biggest, a kneeling sandstone figure, rested against two horse skulls and on fragments of horse jaw, while three horse-head pendants were in the immediate vicinity. Finally, it should be noted that the horse may very well have been under close control during the Upper Palaeolithic, as suggested by a variety of evidence including some possible depictions of simple harnesses on certain figures, especially one from La Marche.
[Paul G. Bahn and Jean Vertut, Images of the Ice Age, Facts on File, New York/Oxford (1988), p. 121. For dietary evidence see, p. 156 f.]
The horse has particular relevance for us, not only because of the importance of cordage for its domestication, nor even for its other associations with the figure of Odin (or, Wotan) in Germanic mythology such as the invention of writing with runes. One of the most significant antique representations of the Cretan Labyrinth shows the design, as it were, being pulled along by a horse. An Etruscan wine jar from the late seventh-century BCE called the Tragliatella vase shows two horses with armed and mounted riders. The first displays a partridge device on his shield and has a strange figure (perhaps Aeneas's aged father Anchises) riding tandem. The rider of the second horse (possibly the hero's son) has a similar round shield with the emblem of a duck, carries a spear, and--as if attached to the horse's tail--pulls a rounded-form of the Labyrinth. Engraved, retrograde, in one of the outer paths of the two- dimensional Labyrinth are the letters TRUIA, marking it as a plan of the city of ancient Troy.
In The White Goddess, Robert Graves associates the maze pattern with the "Spiral Castle" of Arianrhod, also Ariadne's constellation the Corona Borealis, or what in the British Isles is called "Troy Town," where the sacred Solar hero or Sun-king goes, and sometimes returns, after his sacrificial demise. The scene on the Tragliatella vase he thinks represents, not the flight of Aeneas from Troy, but the escape of a potential victim (Theseus) who was doomed, like the partridge in the brushwood maze and, for that matter, the bull on the Hagia Triada sarcophagus or the remains of the bound priest at Archanes, to die.
A Moon-priestess has come to meet him: a terrible robed figure with one arm menacingly akimbo, as she offers an apple, his passport to Paradise....Yet a diminutive female figure, robed like the priestess, guides the king--if the hero is Theseus, we may call her Ariadne [and the priestess would be Pasipha]--who has helped him to escape from the maze. And he boldly displays a counter-charm--namely an Easter-egg, the egg of resurrection. Easter was the season when Troy Town dances were performed on the turf-cut mazes of Britain; and of Etruria, too, where the famous Lars Porsena of Clusium built a labyrinth for his own tomb. (Similar labyrinth tombs existed in pre-Hellenic Greece: near Nauplia, on Samos, and on Lemnos.) An Etruscan egg of polished black trachite, found at Perugia, with an arrow in relief running around it, is the same holy egg. Against the spearmen on the vase [apparently pursuing the "Theseus" figure] is written MAIM; against the king, EKRAUN; against the priestess, MITHES. LUEI. If, as seems probable, these words are Western Greek, they mean, respectively: "Winter," "He Reigned," and "Having pronounced, she sets free." [Or: He reigned, having pronounced "She sets free Winter."] The letters written against Ariadne are indecipherable.
[Graves, The White Goddess, p. 330.]
The words may refer to the winter months when Dionysus was the ruling deity of the temple and the Oracle at Delphi, with its omphalos, while Apollo was away among the Hyperboreans in the Land beyond the North Wind, "the quarter from which the sun never shines." This has been identified with Caer Sidi, or Caer-droia in Wales, the Spiral Castle, and so forth, which is to say metaphorically, the Land of the Dead, astronomically tokened by the Corona Borealis, or--at a more sophisticated level of understanding--the point in the sky located in the loop of the constellation Draco (there are no bright stars just there) marking the pole of the ecliptic, and hence the key to the phenomenon of the precession of the equinox around which it wobbles in a great 25,920-year nutational cycle.
[See Graves, The White Goddess, p. 111 f.]
Robert Graves (as a modern approximation of the bardic poet) does not, however, make associations with the precession in The White Goddess, extraordinary as that book may be. He composed the text in 1946, in the space of a few weeks, working with no notes, in--he says --an "analeptic trance." On the other hand, Hertha von Dechend (who had written about Justus von Liebig) and Giorgio de Santillana (an historian of science), in their differently remarkable book Hamlet's Mill, first published twenty-three years later (1969), so far as we have been able to determine, make scant mention of the Labyrinth save for a footnote on stone labyrinths in Finland (p. 30), and none--although we might have missed something--of the Spiral Castle, Graves, or The White Goddess. Nevertheless, on the back of David R. Godine's paperbound edition of Hamlet's Mill (1977)-- which says something about books and their covers--appears this unintentionally ironic blurb:
"This courageous enterprise," says the Atlantic Monthly, "has produced a provocative book. It is likely to remain, like Robert Graves's White Goddess, a lion in everybody's path for years."
[The citation is attributed to the Washington Post Book World.]
Other arguments, however, do seem to provide indirect support for making connections in this grand tapestry of themes, many important strands of which have been introduced by those two texts. For example, there is the problem of identifying place names suggesting possible origins for the name "Dionysus." There is a series of startling parallels between Dionysus, Cuchulain and, in the great medieval Finnish epic the Kalevala--orally transmitted and unchanged since the earliest, pre-Christian times--the avenging twin Kullervo, who gets sent away to the house of the divine smith Ilmarinen to serve as a cowherd. One of the stories about the Celtic hero Cuchulain, his sword and a magic apple, also provides clues about the forelock, matrilinear succession, and other repressive exploits of King Minos:
A Greek version of the same story is referred to Minoan times: Nissus King of Nisa--an ancient city near Megara destroyed by the Dorians--had his "purple" lock plucked by his daughter Scylla who wished to kill him and marry Minos of Crete. The Greeks have given this story an unlikely moral ending, that Minos drowned Scylla as a parricide from the stern of his galley; at any rate, the genealogy of the Kings of Nisa makes it plain that the throne went by matrilineal succession.
[Graves, The White Goddess, p. 316.]
The Latin poet Virgil (70-19 BCE) provides for our Tragliatella vase another reading in the Aeneid, the epic deliberately modeled on the Iliad and the Odyssey and composed for Octavian (later to become the Emperor Augustus) in order to recount the wanderings of Aeneas after the fall of Troy, leading eventually to the origins of Rome. The Labyrinth seen by Aeneas was very likely not that particular Etruscan oinochoe, although it--or one very much like it--may indeed have been seen by the poet. The Labyrinth still appears, engraved on the rock by the entrance to the oracular Sibyl's cave at Cumae, where both Aeneas (and Daedalus before him) made landfall on the Italian peninsula. This was also the site of a golden-roofed temple to Apollo, on the cliffs above the Sibyl's grotto (said to have been built by Daedalus with the help of earth spirits) and close to Lake Avernus with its volcanic venting of mephitic gasses that represented for both Aeneas and Dante the Entrance to the Underworld, and for Rodin, the Gates of Hell.
Aeneas, who escaped from the city carrying his father on his shoulders, led forth also his little son Iulus. It is this boy whom, in the fifth book of the poem, Virgil pictures as taking part with his companions in a sport called the Ludus Trojae or Lusus Trajae (Game of Troy), sometimes simply Troja. According to the Roman tradition it was introduced into Italy by Aeneas, and his son Ascanius imparted it to the Alban kings and through them to the Romans. The game consisted of a sort of processional parade or dance, in which some of the participants appear to have been mounted on horseback. Virgil draws a comparison between the complicated movements of the game and the convolutions of the Cretan Labyrinth:
They say that once upon a time the Labyrinth in mountainous Crete contained a path, twining between walls which barred the view, with a treacherous plan uncertainty in its thousand ways, so that its baffling plan, which none might master and none retrace, would foil the trace of any guiding clues.
The game is also mentioned as a well-established institution by other Roman writers of a century or so later, such as Suetonius and Tacitus, and appears to have assumed imposing dimensions at one time, as we see from a representation of it on the reverse of a medal of Nero, where it has more of the nature of a military review. It was generally performed by youths, and only those of good social standing took part.
[Matthews, Mazes and Labyrinths, p. 158. In place of the translation by Trapp offered by Matthews for Book Five, lines 585-591, we have substituted the prose rendition by W. F. Jackson Knight in the Penguin Books edition (1956); he also wrote on the Labyrinth, and on Virgil.]
Intriguingly, Virgil also compares the motions of horse and rider to the swimming of playful dolphins. The whole was a carefully staged event, one of the central rituals of the funeral games (the reason for them being held at Cumae, by the Entrance to Hades) intended to honor Anchises, the father of Aeneas. It is the locus classicus for all fancy horsemanship performed by sheriff's posses and mounted drill teams in today's holiday parades. According to the popular festival calendar still generally observed in the United States of America, holidays with parades are celebrated typically on the "cross-quarter days." These relate to the solstices and the equinoxes--as the primary quadrature of the solar year--and to the days falling halfway between them: as if an eight-pointed star were to be superimposed on the annual circuit of (the earth around) the sun.
Ground-hog day, celebrated on Feb. 2, marks the half way point between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. At the vernal equinox, naturally, we have the Easter Parade. Then on May Day, dancing around the May-pole used to be a major celebration in the British Isles until the advent of Oliver Cromwell and the deliberate destruction of megalithic monuments and a sense of respect for the "pagan" past or anything at all smacking of public sexuality. Mexico has Cinco de Mayo by political fiat, but in the United States the holiday has shifted to Memorial Day when, in addition to remembering its dead, America worships speed and the automobile at the Indianapolis 500. Between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox traditional Europeans used to celebrate Lammas, a festival of the early harvest, which falls around August 2nd. The autumnal equinox appears to have been slighted also, but the holiday of Lammas has probably been replaced by Independence Day, the Fourth of July, which now does duty as the big parade day of high summer. The remaining cross-quarter day is of course Halloween, or Samhain (Christianized as the Eve of All Saints Day), when the old Celtic year began. It is celebrated, as every schoolchild knows, with a Halloween parade. Now, parades for the winter solstice are held ten days later on New Year's Day, to accompany momentous collegiate football bowl contests.
The riding skills needed for a performance such as that described by Virgil, while having obvious military applications, were so highly-refined they may also be seen as precedents for modern equestrian competition. This is especially true for dressage in which subtle and accomplished horsemanship must be demonstrated, requiring--above all--a sensitive level of inter-species communication between horse and rider. As a mark of continuity with the ancient insistence upon the "high-born" heritage or "noble" bearing of the performers, the custom persists among real horse-people today that, should the rider become unseated, the horse is never to be blamed; rather--as befitting clarity about whose consciousness was distracted or whose control was lost--if anything at all needs to be said, it must be "I took a fall," or simply, "I fell." Hence, imagine the embarrassment and chagrin among true horse fanciers when former President Ronald Reagan, in a widely-reported incident, was quoted saying "The horse threw me." Modern Olympic equestrian competition is also unusual in that the horse is recognized (traditionally, anyway, by the participants) as the true athlete, which not only helps to atone for arrogance on the part of species supremacists, but also allows head-to-head competition on objectively even ground between genders, both horse and human.
THE TRITON SHELL
Daedalus and Minos finally met up again, in a sort of dénoument of the Labyrinth myth; it was years later, and the scene was set in Sicily. The story goes that Minos, with vengeance in his heart, pursued the "clever artificer" who flew away with his son Icarus on beeswax wings. In order to lure and trap Daedalus, he devised a scheme by which to entice the craftsman--publicly offering a prize to anyone able to solve the problem of stringing a triton shell--believing that only the wit and ingenuity of Daedalus could succeed. Here again appear the motifs of the decoy (as with the brushwood maze used to trap the pesach partridges, or the bull-baiting shown on the gorgeous golden Vapheio cups), and the thread idea of the two-and three-dimensional Labyrinth, now at another order of three-and four-dimensional complexity. Daedalus did discover a solution by affixing a gossamer filament to the back of an ant who then crawled through the small hole bored in the end of the triton shell toward some honey placed at the larger opening. To the end of the filament Daedalus simply attached a sturdier string (some say it was of linen, but it could have been hemp) and pulled it through. So, here we have a further instance of luring, plus honey from the iconographical frame of reference of Pasipha, the Queen Bee. Since both ant and bee are members of Hymenoptera, it is also worth recalling that the empirical method of handling a swarm of bees is to lure them with a queen.
We may recall as well that the Cretan Labyrinth, on the X/Y plane, was designed by Daedalus from the Tower, on the Z axis--from which vantage point, of course, the whole plan of any labyrinth becomes clear and susceptible, as a riddle in space, to solution. The name of the triton shell comes from its association with one of the offspring of Amphitrite and Poseidon: the Triton who was, in patriarchal times a male river-god of Boeotia. Earlier, Triton was one of three goddess-nymphs of Lake Tritonis in Libya (which, in antiquity, meant anywhere west of the Nile River) who nurtured the goddess Athena at her birth. The three were also known as the Graeae and provided her with the magical goat-skin bag (as carried by the Essence, or "Fool" card of the Tarot) upon which the aegis, or the head of the Gorgon, was emblazoned and said to contain a serpent within. Later this was captured by Perseus, and taken by him (together with an oracular tooth and magic eye) around the Eastern Mediterranean (via Phoenecia) to Mycenae ("the place of mushrooms"), where he produced the letters of the alphabet, perhaps as serpent's teeth, somewhat like those which sprouted into "warriors" when sown by the Theban Greek alphabetic hero Cadmus.
Tritone means "the third queen": that is, the eldest member of the triad--mother of the maiden who fought Pallas and of the nymph into which she grew--just as Core-Persephone was Demeter's daughter....Pottery finds suggest a Libyan immigration into Crete as early as 4000 BCE; and a large number of goddess-worshipping Libyan refugees from the Western Delta seem to have arrived there when Upper and Lower Egypt were forcibly united under the First Dynasty about the year 3000 BCE [or, some 300 years earlier].
[Graves, The Greek Myths, Section 8, "The Birth of Athene."]
The gossamer thread detail is a subtle touch: let the ant do the job in principle, as it were--with the most delicate application of abstract principle to concrete reality--then one can attach and pull through the string too heavy for the ant. Clearly this is a lesson about working toward preliminary solutions of problems with available means. Here also is a nice extrapolation of the Labyrinth problem to a different, smaller scale, and with a new order of complexity. Still, we might ask if this episode sheds any light on the genealogical theme that recurs in these legends about King Minos.
As we have observed once before, matter most naturally moves through space in a spiral of time. Even in that which appears to be circular--such as the (apparent) annual cycle of the sun--when the circle closes upon itself, that spot is at some new place in time: for the sun itself has moved, and not only mutually with respect to its nearest companions, but they also rotate aournd the galactic center once in about 200 million years. Our Milky Way is one of thirty or so galaxies in the Local Group, which are held together by gravity and describe complex rotational patterns about one another. These, in turn, are part of the Virgo Cluster, about 50 million light years away and known as the Local Supercluster, composed of some 200 million bright galaxies and many galactic glusters, dominating our region of space. And so go the cycles, the orbits and gyres, in every direction --in the memorable words of the popular astronomer Dr. Carl Sagan--for "billyuns and billyuns" of light years out to enigmatic radio galaxies and quasars which, if the implications of red-shift theory are to be believed, have each qualified their mutual relations by receding at a speed near that of light, one from another, and they all from us.
[An illuminating--if highly simplified--graphic representation of these relationships can be appreciated in the double-page spread, "The Universe: Nature's Grandest Design," in the National Geographic Atlas of the World, Sixth edition, National Geographic Society, Washington, DC, (1990), p. 119.]
To sub-atomic physicists, neurologists, biologists, ecologists, astronomers and cosmologists alike, this is a commonplace: no matter how it may appear to the simple-minded, every apparent circle is a helix. It is no mere accident that the structure of DNA is a double helix. Perhaps, if we think of the heritage of Minos as the string, the lesson related to the Triton shell--an archetypally female form, and associated with a mythological figure, who as we note, was originally female--is about matriliny. On ancient Crete, for all its kings and warlords, this rule by men (or, patriarchal line) was possibly transmitted by old, but still deeply respected matrilineal institutions, as tokened by the emblematically female Triton shell.
THE ESSENTIAL ELEMENT
In every society there is the essential element of the Woman, which may be manifested either as the warp or as the weft in mapping the social structure so that it can be understood historically. When we say, so easily, that the "power" or "rulership" passes through either patriliny or matriliny, it must always be qualified in meaning; for, human relationships, however neatly programmed or designed, are ever compromised by sophisticated complexities of both the psyche and the "accidents" of real life: how things happen to fall out anyway.
In medieval Tibet, the great sage (and later become saint) Milarepa, whose Hundred Throusand Songs were among Constantin Brancusi's favorite reading material (the book was always by his bedside in the Paris studio), early in his shamanic career, as a Great Sorcerer, practiced black magic at the urging of his mother with the intent of furthering her real estate interests. Until the genocidal invasion of the Chinese in 1959 and their subsequent desecration of one of the world's historically, artistically, and spiritually richest cultures, much of the real power in Tibet was, in fact, controlled by women--which involved even the widepread practice of polyandry. But it would be hard to discern this without direct experience, deep reading, or explicit communication with expatriate Tibetans, because the most pronounced and obvious emphasis is on male activities, especially in the monastic traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. Nevertheless, the Vajrayana necessarily depicts the Mahamudra (the "Grand Gesture") in a graphic representation of its central message, as the yab/yum, a yogic coupling of male and female forms as emblematic of cosmic principles, symbolzing the unity of Wisdom and Compassion.
In the cultural traditions of the Christian West--and also of the Islamic Middle East--the figure of archetypal Woman has found it ncessary to practice subterfuge. For while the female form has been represented--often as not on a pedestal--the true nature of her power and majesty as Mother of All has been the official Secret, the under-ground transmission of which has been at the core of esoteric teaching and practice. From time to time, now in this place now in another, it has burst forth into the light to grace the everyday world; those occasions are invariably regarded as periods of high culture--renascences, always of some Golden Age--with blossoming of the sciences, the visual arts, poetry, architecture, music. Such were the times at Baghdad in the court of Haroun ar-Rashid, when great Sufi saints might be honored as advisors of state, or in Province of the troubadors when the institution of courtly love gave passionate expression to those ideals the West has honored ever since as "chivalry," the roots of which (through cheval, French for "horse") go back through Aeneas and the Etruscans, through various labyrinthine wanderings, some via Crete to Troy, and ultimately back to the caves.
Among the oldest surviving examples of the Labyrinth theme in a Christian context is a pavement maze about eight feet square in the basilica of Reparatus at Orlansville, Algeria. Matthews has noted the resemblance of this work "to the Roman pavement found at Harham and the tomb-mosaic at Susa." The ("non-Cretan") form is composed along two axes of symmetry, and contains in its center a word-game, or jeu-des-lettres, recalling Duchamp's game painted on the plaques of With Hidden Noise; in the square of letters in the Orlansville example, reading outward from the center any direction except diagonally, one spells out the words SANTA ECLESIA, "Holy Church." The sixth-century church of San Vitale in Ravenna, constructed by the Emperor Justinian, also has a large circular maze set in the pavement in front of the choir with its glorious mosaics. There a dark band appears to lead from the center outward because it is punctuated with a sequence of white stone triangles quite like arrowheads indicating directionality. There may have been a total of 384 such marble markers, among which every sixth one is set in a square of distinctly darker color, probably to aid the penitent in the repetition of Aves or prayers.
[Matthews, Mazes and Labyrinths, p. 54 f.]
The medieval cathedrals of Lucca and Cremona, and Italian churches from the same period in Pavia and Piacenza, featured mazes with representations depicting Theseus, the Minotaur, and--in the church of San Michele at Pavia--signs of the zodiac and other con-stellations, including "Equs" and "Draco." An example in the church of Santa Maria-in-Aquiro in Rome, later than Ravenna by only a few hundred years, was composed of porphyry (purple marble) alternating with bands of yellow and green marble around a porphyry center. Decorative diamonds or lozenges in multi-colored marble also mark the path in a unique circular pavement maze probably constructed around 1190 in the church of Santa Maria-de-Trastevere in Rome which, at its center, may have intended to illustate the "five crossings" of Eternity.
It is now somewhat mutilated, but was originally a most beautiful example. The fact that the inner paths consist of a series of concentric rings rather suggests that it has at some time been repaired without regard to the original design; unless we accept the hypothesis of M. Durand that they bore a symbolic reference to the various degrees of beatitude by which the soul approaches heaven, as figured by Dante.
[Matthews, Mazes and Labyrinths, p. 58. Matthews illustrates diagrams for most of these mazes in addition to many turf mazes, and so forth.]
The whole inspiration of that amazing flowering of ancient Gaulish/Celtic traditions known as the French High Gothic--with virtually all of its sublime stained glass, elegant manuscripts, exquisite sculpture, audacious masonry, mystically innovative technology, bold theology and brilliant logic, appearing within a couple of generations and within a hundred miles of Paris--was attributed to, and dedicated to Notre Dame. Set into the stone pavements of those cathedrals, usually in front of the choir area, and so easily accessible to pilgrims and members of the congregation, there was often a labyrinth design, following the custom inherited from the building of Early Christian and medieval Italian churches.
These pavements bore various names following medieval custom, such as Chemin de Jrusalem; also, sometimes they would be known as daedale, or meandre. They were usually symmetrical, elaborate mazes that did not, however, retain the classical Cretan form. The center might be known as ciel, or Jérusalem, and sometimes (as at Rheims, Chartres and Amiens) would feature a figure said to represent the architect. Approaching the high altar, the pilgrim might follow the path of the labyrinth design, as if to recapitulate the path of the archetypal pilgrimage; if penitential, the traversing might be done on the knees, so as to put the symbolic (or, believed real) sources of the "life stuff" directly into contact with consecrated ground.
[See, Onians, Chapter IV "The Knees," The Origins of European Thought, pp. 174 ff The Greek gonu, Latin genu, Irish glun are probably all cognate with the term for "generation," and as well with "genuflection" and "gonads." See also, Matthews, Chapter IX, "Church Labyrinths," Mazes and Labyrinths, pp. 54 ff.]
At Chartres, the high altar has been moved on several occasions in modern times; the original locus and true center of the cathedral--which will have been directly atop the sacred mound of the archaic, pre-Christian Celtic shrine--was between the first and the second bays of the choir, the spot marked by the crossing of the false transepts of Fulbert's earlier Romanesque church. Before the high altar was moved in the sixteenth century, this precise spot
was surmounted at that time by a spire in carved wood, higher than the spire at the crossing of the transepts, in which were some little bells of the kind known as "babblers." The spire disappeared in the fire of 1836 which made havoc of the roof without however doing any damage to the vault....Recently the altar has again been moved to the crossing of the transepts; that is to say, in front of the area where the old rood-screen shut off the mystical part of the church. Ignorance is always with us.
The centre, where the altar ought to stand, is in the middle of the second bay of the choir. This bay is still indicated, to the south-east, by the window of Notre-Dame-de-la- Belle-Verrire, and to the north-west by the chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Pillier. Besides, this bay, centre and origin of the whole, is framed, in the aisles, by round pillars, bare, without colonnettes; two on one side, two on the other, the only ones of this kind in the aisles. It is easily seen that the necessary pointers are not wanting. It is round this centre that a cathedral was built.
[Louis Charpentier, The Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral, translated by Ronald Fraser with Jannette Jackson, Research Into Lost Knowledge Organisation, London (1972), p. 84.]
Fifteen hundred years after the conventional reckoning of the birth of Christ, Leonardo da Vinci--then nearly fifty years old himself--had just finished painting the Last Supper, and was at the height of his fame. After the fall of his wise and inspired patron Lodovico Sforza in Milan, Leonardo returned to Florence, which city had expelled the Medici in 1494, and resisted political pressure by the French--but at the price of fanning a psycho-social conflagration initiated by the iconoclastic fanatic Girolomo Savanarola. This maniacal fundamentalist, only a few years earlier, had shamed Sandro Botticelli into giving up painting forever, inducing the artist--in a fit of puritanical fervor--to throw on a huge bonfire most of his own works as tokens of vanity. Although Botticelli never did paint again, it was not long before the Florentines burnt Savanarola himself at the stake, allowing to flower again, in that city of flowers, the great garden of delight we know today as the High Renaissance. Leonardo--while still in Milan--painted the Madonna of the Rocks, based on the theme of the Immaculate Conception, attempting to reveal thereby the mystery of space itself; now he pursued this idea in a new painting. Giorgio Vasari, the early art historian, described the occasion:
At last he finished a cartoon [different from that in London?], in which the Madonna, St. Anne and the Christ Child were so beautifully portrayed that not only artists, but the townspeople as well were overcome with admiration. For two days one could witness the spectacle of men and women, young and old, making a pilgrimage to the room, as though it were a magnificent festival. Leonardo's masterpiece astonished the entire population.
[See, Ludwig H. Heydenreich, Leonardo da Vinci, George Allen and Unwin, London (1954), p.41 f. Translation of the 1928 German edition.]
The theme concerns the miraculous, matrilineal transmission of Divine Grace. One important element of Marian veneration as taught by the Roman Catholic Church holds that--in order to be a proper vessel for the Incarnation of Christ, she was HERSELF conceived and born without taint of original sin. This belief, necessarily reflecting on the relationship with her mother--the issue of spiritual matriliny--was only formally proclaimed as dogma in a Papal Bull by Pius IX in 1854, thereby invoking a limit on the logic of infinite regression. However, there was a long history of the Virgin Mary's cultic importance and, although the facts of her life are unmentioned in Scripture, by tradition she was announced miraculously to St. Joachim and St. Anne and presented and dedicated at the Temple as a virgin. Neither is St. Anne mentioned in Scripture, but her cult is also said to be very old; the general idea of parthenogenesis, or virgin birth, of course includes the myth of the birth of Athena, and the legends of partridges in a brushwood maze, with hidden noise. But it was neither mythical nor doctrinal issues that fascinated the Florentines.
Such an enthusiastic ovation in Florence, the artistic center of Italy where the most famous painters competed with one another, could have been accorded only to a performance that was consider-ed extraordinary. And, in fact, the St. Anne marks a turning-point in Italian painting as regards both form and content; iconographically, it is a genuinely new creation, and as regards the form of this group-composition it is a new representation of this difficult theme....In the cartoon [in the Royal Academy of Arts, London] the principles of Classic Art are fulfilled; the monumental figure style, the harmonious balance between motion and repose, and the inner and outward unity of the composition... the group gives an impression of monumentality because of its massive strength, its sculptural clarity, and the ideal simpli-city and pure beauty of its figures....[In the painting] the dynamic intensity of the composition...was the exciting novelty that impressed the Florentine audience....the group built up in an entirely new way, three-dimensional, plastic and spatial, by the skillful change of aspect of the two female figures, which are balanced one against the other....Leonardo did not finish the picture in Florence but kept it beside him for years, taking it with him to Milan in 1507. It was there that he completed it, adding the landscape, a barren mountain range--a bit of inanimate cosmos--before whose light and boundless horizon the figure group stands out in unusual, almost unreal propinquity.
[Heydenreich, Leonardo da Vinci, p. 42 f.]
Comparisons between the earlier cartoon--a beautiful work in its own right--and the painting have been a source of great interest to art historians in part because of the pentimenti, or changes, made by Leonardo in composition and design, hence the meaning, of the piece. For example, there appears in the cartoon, together with the figure of John the Baptist, like Jesus a young child, the familiar image of St. Anne's hand with the extended index finger pointing straight up in the air, as if to indicate metaphorically the direction of evolving consciousness in the lineage. It reappears later in Leonardo's John the Baptist (like this painting, also in the Louvre), but neither the pointing finger nor the child St. John were included in the St. Anne.In the cartoon Leonardo had positioned the heads of the mother and daughter side by side, intending to contrast their expressions and personalities, while in the painting, there is a marvelous sweeping curve that flows from the head of St. Anne, following her maternal gaze, down to the head of the Virgin Mary, and with her tender gesture to that of the Christ Child who is grasping the right ear of the Sacrificial Lamb. Baby Jesus also has his leg astride the Lamb's back as if mounting the wee Beast while His Mother gently restrains Him.
Along the horizon line, parallel with the head of St. Anne, are now lined up: on the far right a great tree, the vegetable kingdom; and where in the cartoon, just above the pointing finger some have seen hints of a lamb's head, there now appears the mineral kingdom, a magnificent representation of mountainous rocks, to balance the head of St. Anne, the Great Mother with one arm akimbo, the original vehicle for the Spirit of Life as embodied in the kingdom of animalia. To the left of St. Anne's head may be the most mysterious element of all: symmetrically disposed with respect to the tree on the right is a view into the deep space of a riverine valley down which flows the Waters of Life, as if from Paradise, and--just as James Joyce found the emblematically female, eternally nurturing spirit of Anna Livia Plurabelle in the riverrun waters of dear dirty old Dublin's Liffey--the same mystical force follows the tender curve of the Virgin Mary's arm, radiating from her knee, then spinning out an intricate pinwheel of divine energy from the Christ Child's arm, and the swirl of hands and feet, to the tail of the Lamb: Agnus Dei, Qui tollis peccata mundi, "O Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world." With the emergence of large, densely populated communities--that is, cities--humanity established on earth its basic pattern of species domination, environmental usurpation, and ecological conquest, instituting or imposing most of the distinguishing features we still recognize--with arrogance, disdain, and deeply mistaken pride--as "civilization." By around 3000 BCE there had appeared all of the basic elements of city life by which we set ourselves apart from prehistoric populations, significant among which were institutions of political rule, organized religion, the Three R's, taxes, armies, a division of labor permitting a group of skilled artisans to specialize in producing works of art for those with the resources to buy or the power to command them, and--for all we know, although it cannot be proven--art critics. These Late Neolithic innovations represent a technological base upon which, in the words of Gary Snyder, "we have been, essentially, coasting ever since." That was the second great time in the history of the world when again all of humanity was one.
Now, the third such occasion appears to be at hand. Perhaps this is in the nature of what the Hopi call a "Purification." Speculations about its particular features are quite possibly no more than that: just speculations or prophesies, nightmares or dreams. The suggestions touched on in the present text are not necessarily any better, nor more accurate, nor actually any more likely to come about than anyone else's far-fetched notions, whether of impending doom or Pollyanna's paradise. But some useful general principles may provide us with good guidance; there are also some practical caveats--warnings, or implicit negative considerations: that is, certain beliefs and practices likely to prove either irrelevant or obstructive. It is easy to see that this might apply to taking sides in any of the old dialectic processes, such as those debates concerning matriarchy or patriarchy, about which gender is supposed to "rule," since any rule truly relevant to our times must be formulated from none but the purest gold.
With appropriate wisdom and compassion--rather than succumbing to vengeance and retribution and instead of the dominance and repression that "iron rule" implies--we do well to cultivate the receptivity associated with the quest for alchemical "gold." We must consider carefully whatever clues might lead to resolving such dichotomies. Some of them are natural and immediately obvious, deeply programmed into the psycho-biology of most so-called higher mammals: namely, developing patterns of cooperation that transcend the enmity of gender distinctions by receiving our inspiration and enlightenment from the example of children. In this process we may be further guided by the living paradigms of other highly-evolved, cooperative species-- most especially by the cetaceans: whales and dolphins. The greatest of historical Christian saints, Francis of Assissi, taught that we may learn as well from the dignity of trees and the beauty of flowers.
As the collective consciousness of humanity hopefully evolves toward the principle of Light, for the benefit not just of ourselves, but for the future generations of all that lives, may we come to appreciate and respect the tranquility of clean air, clear fresh water, and the pristine expanse of space.