A brief history of ‘gender’ by @wordspinster

Cross-posted from: Language: a feminist guide
Originally published: 15.12.16

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In New York City in 1999, I heard a talk in which Riki Anne Wilchins (self-styled ‘transexual menace’, and described in the Gender Variance Who’s Who as ‘one of the iconic transgender persons of the 1990s’) declared that feminists had no theory of gender. I thought: ‘what is she talking about? Surely feminists invented the concept of gender!’

Fast forward ten years to 2009, when I went to a bookfair in Edinburgh to speak about The Trouble & Strife Reader, a collection of writing from a feminist magazine I’d been involved with since the 1980s. Afterwards, two young women came up to chat. Interesting book, they said, but why is there nothing in it about gender?

From my perspective the book was all about gender—by which I meant, to use Gayle Rubin’s 1975 formulation, ‘the socially-imposed division of the sexes’. Feminists of my generation understood gender as part of the apparatus of patriarchy: a social system, built on the biological foundation of human sexual dimorphism, which allocated different roles, rights and responsibilities to male and female humans. But by 2009 I knew this was no longer what ‘gender’ meant to everyone. To the young women at the bookfair, ‘gender’ meant a form of identity, located in and asserted by individuals rather than imposed on them from outside. It wasn’t just distinct from sex, it had no necessary connection to sex. And it wasn’t a binary division: there were many genders, not just two.
Read more A brief history of ‘gender’ by @wordspinster

Whose story is it anyway? by @strifejournal

Cross-posted from: Trouble & Strife
Originally published: 09.08.16

The stewardship of feminism’s collective memory raises all kinds of ethical questions. Can our approach be based on trust alone?  Frankie Green shares some thoughts on feminism, archiving and accountability.

 

No need to hear your voice when I can talk about you better than you can speak about yourself. No need to hear your voice. Only tell me about your pain. I want to know your story. And then I will tell it back to you in a new way. Tell it back to you in such a way that it has become mine, my own. Re-writing you, I write myself anew. I am still author, authority. I am still the colonizer, the speaking subject, and you are now at the center of my talk (bell hooksYearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics).

The context in which bell hooks writes is very different from mine. Yet her words resonate strongly with me, illuminating some questions I want to explore here.

Archiving the history of the WLM is well-established, as we who experienced that era believe it crucial to ensure that our movement is not lost to history. The importance of taking this task seriously has been elucidated by Jalna Hanmer, and many have worked tirelessly on collecting and cataloguing information, making it available to new generations of activists, students and historians. Our collections provide insights into the aims, achievements and processes of the movement and show how it was sustained at grassroots level by thousands of women – many of whom did not become well-known, since they never attracted the attention of the mainstream media.
Read more Whose story is it anyway? by @strifejournal

Remembering Carrie Fisher

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Read more Remembering Carrie Fisher

Charlotte Bronte did NOT repair her mourning shoes with her dead sister’s hair!

Cross-posted from: Katharine Edgar
Originally published: 09.12.16

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A lie can travel halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on. Or, in this case, a contemporary artwork shared by a witty but mistaken tweeter can lead to a myth taking root worldwide, with over 16,000 retweets and nearly 30,000 Twitter likes in a few days. That’s a lot of people who now think this is true and that Charlotte Bronte really did go for muddy walks in her black silk mourning slippers and then fix them with Emily’s hair, not forgetting to embroider little sprigs of heather on the insoles.
Read more Charlotte Bronte did NOT repair her mourning shoes with her dead sister’s hair!

A Siege of Herons and a Winter Forest: Carols, Poems and Stories for Christmas by @LucyAllenFWR

Cross-posted from: Reading Medieval Books
Originally published: 22.12.15

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When I emptied out my desk in search of Christmas cards, I realised I’d been stockpiling quite a bit. Wrapping paper with yew and ivy and Christmas berries on it; stocks of illuminated manuscripts; multiple versions of deer in winter (I understand you can buy a Primark Christmas jumper with queer deer now, too); lots of birds sitting in amongst the illuminated branches and Christmas greenery. I’ve got birds on the tree, too, and my housemate made a wreath with mistletoe, holly and fir cones from Cambridge Botanic gardens (she works there). And I’ve been cutting back the laurel and ivy hedges in the back garden so I’ve got a mug full of ivy berries.

IMG_3428 It’s all traditional Christmas imagery – the outside brought inside; the reminders of winter forests. But for medieval people, Christmas was not just a mid-winter festival; it was also the culmination of the fasting season of Advent and the beginning of the Twelve Days of Christmas, the traditional time for Christmas games and feasting and also for hunting the animals to provide the Christmas food. The religious festival itself had a plangent and brooding undertone, which you can see from carols such as the mournful Coventry Carol, the austere, foreboding and triumphal ‘Out of Your Sleep/Arise and Wake’ and ‘Adam Lay Y-Bounden’, with their glances out from Christ’s nativity to the Harrowing of Hell it foreshadows. These carols shift our attention, from the expected centrality of Christ’s nativity, to focus on the narratives that run alongside, and outside, this one.
Read more A Siege of Herons and a Winter Forest: Carols, Poems and Stories for Christmas by @LucyAllenFWR

Even after death

Cross-posted from: Abigail Rieley
Originally published: 03.11.16

I’ve often written about the case of William Burke Kirwan on this blog. His was the case that caused me to pursue a different path in life. Since 2010 I’ve been researching his murder of his wife and it’s lead me back to university and in directions I never dreamed of and there’s plenty more to do. So at this stage I’m a little bit proprietorial. My friends know this about me and tend to point out interesting nuggets about the case they stumble upon. In Dublin, after all, it’s a very well know case indeed. You can still argue about it if you take the boat out to Ireland’s Eye from Howth.

So when the Irish Times featured the case as part of their series of stories from their archives, quite a few Irish friends sent me the link and asked me what I thought. Now I’ll say again that this is a case that is very special to me so I’m apt to be a touch judgemental but in this case the article in question raised my hackles both as a historical scholar and as a court reporter. 
Read more Even after death

Andrea Dworkin – Behind the Myth by @Finn_Mackay

Cross-posted from: Finn Mackay
Originally published: 01.09.15

Andrea Dworkin was, and remains, a Feminist legend. It is too bad that what most people know about her is nothing more than anti-feminist myth.

I first met Andrea in Brighton in 1996, at the International Conference on Violence, Abuse and Women’s Citizenship. I was then lucky enough to meet her on two other occasions, including several conversations that I will treasure. I will never forget listening to her keynote speech in that hall in Brighton, amongst rows and rows of over one thousand women, all mesmerised by the honesty and strength of Andrea’s testimony. I will never forget the passion with which she spoke and the clear, steely determination behind her low, slow, measured and husky tones. She did not mince those words; a lot of her speeches are visceral, they reference the physical suffering of abused women and children, they reference the legacy that scars the bodies of those in prostitution and pornography. 
Read more Andrea Dworkin – Behind the Myth by @Finn_Mackay

Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years – a review at Americas Studies

Cross-posted from: Americas Studies
Originally published: 14.03.14

I first saw Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years (2012) when it was screened at the FWSA Biennial Conference in June 2013 at the University of Nottingham. The film focuses on the time the African American, feminist, lesbian, warrior, poet, Audre Lorde spent travelling back and forth to Berlin between 1984 and 1992, and her influence on the Afro-German community.


Read more Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years – a review at Americas Studies

Elizabeth Macarthur’s Quilt at the National Gallery of Victoria

Cross-posted from: Adventures in Biography
Originally published: 30.08.16

The gallery had sold out of the glossy, colour catalogue for Making the Australian Quilt: 1800–1950 by the time I saw the exhibition last week. But I had a terrific chat with the young woman serving at the museum shop while I placed an order to have the catalogue mailed out (at a discounted rate, no less).

“Isn’t it interesting,” she said, “how contemporary some of those quilt designs are. It’s amazing to think they predated modernism by decades.  But not acknowledged, of course.” She gave me a gorgeous, wry smile. “Why would women’s sewing be acknowledged as art?”

Making the Australian Quilt: 1800–1950 is a wonderful and important exhibition now showing at NGV Australia (the gallery at Federation Square, in the heart of Melbourne). Over eighty works are on display – mainly quilts and bedcovers – and they are variously beautiful, historically significant, poignant, charming and fascinating. Intricate quilts stitched by convict women en route to Australia. Depression-era blankets (called waggas) made in desperation from scrounged bits and pieces. Delicate embroidery commemorating the jubilee of Queen Victoria. 
Read more Elizabeth Macarthur’s Quilt at the National Gallery of Victoria

TAULA AND KAULA WAHINE, PROPHETESSES OF THE PACIFIC

Cross-posted from: Suppressed Histories Archives
Originally published: 01.01.14

I spend a lot of time digging around for cultural records of women. This information is not yielded up easily, and the sources are often problematic for their bias, whether masculine or Euro-racialist and colonialist. So it is gratifying to come across a source that contains very hard-to-find information, in this case historical accounts of female spiritual leadership in the Pacific Islands. I proceed on the assumption that a great deal of information is preserved in oral traditions I don’t have access to, and that documents written by missionaries and “explorers” (traveling with colonial navies) can be problematic because of their biases. Yet they sometimes contain important testimony, as shown by what follows.

The following is drawn from an article “Oral literature of Polynesia” in a book with a most unlikely title for such a subject: ‪The Growth of LiteratureThe ancient literature of Europe, by ‬Hector Munro Chadwick‬, ‪Nora Kershaw Chadwick‬, ‪Kershaw H Chadwick‬. London and NY: ‪Cambridge University Press‬, 1940 (1968). The book came to me via a roundabout search triggered by an Hawaiian oral history that set me looking for prophetic and priestly women. It was a story about the prominent kaula wahine Pao.
Read more TAULA AND KAULA WAHINE, PROPHETESSES OF THE PACIFIC

Suffragette – A Film Review at Madam J-Mo

Cross-posted from: Madam J-Mo
Originally published: 24.10.15

CareyThis post contains plot spoilers about the 2015 film Suffragette.

On one hand I was very excited to see the 2015 film Suffragette because this is a period of history I have long been fascinated and inspired by. One the other hand I was very nervous to see the film precisely because I know so much about the era – and I was worried that the film industry would either a) over-dramatise things for effect to distort facts, or b) invent one or two things to make the plot more ‘Hollywood’.

I always refer to myself as a supporter of the suffragists rather than the suffragettes. The suffragists (the peaceful ones who campaigned for many decades but rarely made the news) far outnumbered the militant suffragettes (the ones who got the headlines for the few years they were active), and it frustrates me that the law-abiding, peaceful and effective suffragists are so often overlooked than their more sensational sisters. So while it looks unlikely that a film about Millicent Fawcett’s lifelong campaign and petitioning will be made any time soon, Suffragette is the best we’re likely to get for now.
Read more Suffragette – A Film Review at Madam J-Mo

Florynce “Flo” Kennedy – A Black Radical Feminist

Cross-posted from: Carolyn Gage
Originally published: 28.04.16

Florynce Kennedy… The first and only time I ever saw her on camera was in the cameo role of “Zella Wylie” in the Lizzie Borden film, Born in Flames. A kind of women’s liberation “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” Zella mentors the young female militants who are engaged in overthrowing the patriarchy and taking over the world in this feminist, science fiction classic.  Here’s “Zella,” addressing an age-old feminist concern:

“All oppressed people have a right to violence. It’s like the right to pee: you’ve gotta have the right place, you’ve gotta have the right time, you’ve gotta have the appropriate situation. And believe me, this is the appropriate situation.”

And Florynce would know. She had organized a “pee-in” at Harvard University to protest the lack of women’s bathrooms.  …

 

You can read the full post here. 

 

Women & writing: A celebration of true greatness by @AliyaMughal1

Cross-posted from: Aliya Mughal

“It’s not so easy writing about nothing.” 

So starts Patti Smith’s glorious homage to the temperamental nature of the creative life.  M Train is one of those books that not only lives up to the unanimous praise of reviewers, it exceeds it. It’s a book that envelops you in an absorbing journey through the “the twisting track of the mind’s convolutions”, as inimitably described by Smith herself.  Unrestrained in the rawness of her reflections, Smith is a writer so incisive that you read her words with a sense of wonder and envy.

M Train is the latest book to join my beloved collection of works by women through the ages.  As with all writers I admire, there’s the vain hope that through some mysterious process of literary osmosis, I might emulate a speck of their talent and output.  A grandiose delusion indeed but in the words of another talented storyteller I’ve recently been binge-reading, Brene Brown, “it’s like walking toward a star in the sky.  We never really arrive but we certainly know that we’re heading in the right direction”.
Read more Women & writing: A celebration of true greatness by @AliyaMughal1

Barbara Cartland – author and aerogliding pioneer

Cross-posted from: Women Rock Science
Originally published: 08.04.14

 

Women Rock Science : A site dedicated to celebrating the achievements of women and girls in science

My History by Antonia Fraser – Book Review

Cross-posted from: Adventures in Biography
Originally published: 25.01.16

Antonia FraserPrivilege is relative, isn’t it.  As long as there is someone wealthier, smarter or better-off than you, then it’s hard to consider yourself privileged.  Even when you most certainly are.

English biographer Antonia Fraser DBE is something of a paragon.  Her biographies are best sellers (Mary Queen of Scots) that get made into movies by the hollywood elite (Marie Antoinette).  The several I have read are engaging, impeccably researched and – on occasion and appropriately – laugh out loud funny (Warrior Queens).

In her ‘Memoir of Growing Up’ Fraser, now in her eighties, is at pains to describe what an ordinary girl she was, and how middle-class her upbringing.  This despite being the granddaughter of an Earl and, on her mother’s side, a wealthy Harley Street medico.  She grew up in North Oxford (not as well-to-do, Fraser assures us, as South Oxford) where her father was a don and, later, a Labour minister in England’s post-WWII government.
Read more My History by Antonia Fraser – Book Review

Vesta, Persephone, Ana Mendieta: Sacred Altars Re-visited by @rebecca9

Cross-posted from: The Daly Woolf
Originally published: 15.10.15

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I am intrigued by asteroids. Peculiar asymmetrical floating formations of carbon, stone, and metal. Piles of streaming space rubble, some astronomers conclude. There are literally thousands (and more being discovered) of these eccentric objects in orbit around the sun ranging in size from pebbles to hundreds of miles of surface. Their home is called the asteroid belt, that celestial territory between Mars and Jupiter. Astronomers conjecture that asteroids are the leftover material of our solar system, or the fractured remains of what was once a planet, but they don’t know for sure. The four major asteroids (major because of their size) are Ceres, Vesta, Pallas, Hygiea; allegorically symbolized in the astrological literature as females with mythological roots in the Roman and Greek storied timeline.

Most astrologers don’t often include the asteroids in readings, partly, I think, because so little is known about them. The Dawn Spaceprobe has been orbiting the asteroid belt for about eight years now so we can expect to hear much more about the features and mechanics of the main asteroids.

Modern astronomers with their Uranian cache of prodigious technological wizardry and mechanistic mental mainframes can’t  provide us with the links to understand the deeper meaning and signification of these astonishing cosmic asteroidal actors. We are immensely fortunate though to have in our arsenal of historical reverie and scholarship the few books that do bring the asteroids into narrative relevance. Demetra George’s The Asteroid Goddesses is most famous. Yet, hereto, once again the myths lead us around the amiable, well manicured, predictable grounds of the Father’s House. Imprinted in the psyche are the usual tractable, complimentary female, archetypically tedious characters with their patriarchal stamp of approval: Consorts, Divinely Feminine Hearth Keepers, Critical Feminine Warriors sprung from Daddy’s Head (critical of who and what we should ask), and The Steadfast Domestically Satiated Goodly Wife. Never are we let to stray too far from those  Gardens of Heaven and the often gruesome violence meted to those who stray out of bounds.
Read more Vesta, Persephone, Ana Mendieta: Sacred Altars Re-visited by @rebecca9

Elsie Macgill: first female aircraft designer in the world and activist

Cross-posted from: Women Rock Science

tumblr_n475b965pZ1s9nn84o1_r1_1280Meet Elsie MacGill, a legend in aircraft design and production and the first female aircraft designer in the world. In 1938 she became Chief Aeronautical Engineer at Canadian Car and Foundry where she led the production and redesign of several planes including the Hawker Hurricane – the plane responsible for the most British victories in WWII. Most of the employees in the factory were women and by the wars end they had produced 1,400 aircraft, a massive feat. Elsie had forged new techniques for aeroplane production and mass production and won the Gzowski Medal for this work.
Read more Elsie Macgill: first female aircraft designer in the world and activist

Mxing it by @wordspinster

Cross-posted from: Language: A Feminist Guide
Originally published: 15.01.16

At a conference not long ago, I found myself talking to a woman whose name-badge identified her as ‘Ms Kate Brown’. Mine just said ‘Deborah Cameron’. We concluded that there was no logical explanation for this disparity: maybe the administrator whose job was to make the badges had just got more and more pissed off with having to check each female delegate’s title–‘Ms Brown, Mrs Green, Dr White, Miss Pink’–until finally she thought, ‘fuck this shit, I’ll just use people’s names!’

And why not? I wish I had a pound for every minute of my life that’s been wasted on dealing with the question ‘is that Miss or Mrs?’ In the past, when I was young and stroppy, I used to respond by giving an obviously untruthful and absurd answer like ‘Rear Admiral’ or ‘Wing Commander’. Since my interlocutors were human, I could count on them to work out that what I actually meant was, ‘mind your own business: for the purpose of making a dental appointment, my marital status is irrelevant’.

But in the age of the drop-down menu resistance has become futile. The system demands that a box must be ticked, and the system is a literal-minded fool. Once, while transacting some business online, I was pleased to see that the title menu had a ‘none’ option. I selected it, and subsequently received several emails that started ‘Dear None Cameron’.
Read more Mxing it by @wordspinster

A Medieval English Islamophobic Romance, Written in the Daily Mail by @LucyAllenFWR

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A few weeks ago, while I was busy with various things including signing an open letter written by my colleague*, I discovered in passing that a very small group of people I’d never met or spoken to were getting quite het up about my teaching of Medieval romance. This was, naturally, a bit of a surprise. My students seemed broadly quite positive about the course, so I put it to the back of my mind. But, this morning, I saw something on David Perry’s blog – Islamophobic rallies in Prague were attended by participants wearing the costumes of medieval Crusaders – and something suddenly clicked for me.

The criticism I’d received had come from a Change.org petition (I’m not sure whether to be insulted or pleased it’s only got 94 signatures, or rather less than a full lecture hall). The main critique focussed on our open letter, but I also came to a criticism – apparently written under the misapprehension that I’m a history lecturer, but clearly referring to my course:

“A more legitimate concern in academia should be that a history lecturer calling for this act of censorship thinks Medieval romance perpetuates Islamophobia –  a breathtaking a-historicism that really should have alarm bells ringing.”

At the time, I was bemused.
Read more A Medieval English Islamophobic Romance, Written in the Daily Mail by @LucyAllenFWR

RAISING THE DEAD: MEDICINE WOMEN AND SOUL RETRIEVAL

Cross-posted from: Suppressed Histories Archive
Originally published: 21.04.13

Bari Gongju

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Bari Gongju, whose strength of spirit overcame daunting obstacles

Korean tradition holds that the first shaman was female, Bari Gongju (also transliterated as Pali Kongju). Her name means “Princess Thrown-Away.” Her father cast her off at birth for being a girl, the seventh in a series of daughters. He tore her from her mother’s arms, locked her in a jeweled box, and cast her into the ocean. Turtles or dragons rescued her and brought her to a peasant couple, who raised her. She eventually became a mudang.

Her story turns on her filial behavior, years later, when her parents became sick. The Mountain God appeared before her and told her that her parents were sick. Only water from the Western Sky Heaven could cure them.  Bari Gongju went to the palace and, disclosing her identity, said that she would undertake the dangerous journey to find the water.

It was a long journey through the spirit world to the Western Sky.  Disguised as a boy, Pali Kongju passed between the North Pole Star and the South Pole Star.  She met the Old Farming Woman of Heaven, who made her plow and sow a field by herself.  Then she had to get past the Laundress of Heaven, who forced her to wash all her laundry from black to white, causing a monsoon. Finally, she reached cliffs that led to the Western Sky.  Once again, golden turtles came to her rescue, forming a bridge to get her there safely.  She found the well with the water of life, protected by the Guardian, a rather disagreeable old man.  Still dressed as a boy, she asked him for some of the water, but when he learned she had no money to pay for it, he refused. [Tara, online; i retain her spelling in this excerpt.]

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Mudang in the multi-colored robes of Bari Gongju

But Bari Gongju convinced the Guardian to let her become his servant. After three years of work, she was no closer to getting the water. Then the Guardian discovered that she was female, and asked her to marry him. She did so, and bore him seven sons. Only then did he give her the elixir of water. She returned to find that her parents had just died, with funeral ceremonies underway. She sprinkled them with the water and brought them back to life. They gratefully offered her a place in the palace, but she refused.

She returned to the spirit world, where she became a goddess who helps souls of the dead journey to the otherworld. “Except for Cheju [Jeju] Island, Pali Kongju is regarded as the ancestor of modern shamans in Korea, even though she has been known by many different names.” [Lee, 169, note 9] She is a prototype celebrated in rituals in which the mudang enact the story of her passing through a portal of the Underworld. They wear sleeves striped with a rainbow of colors.

A Lakota Medicine woman

The wana’gi wapiyé Lucille Kills Enemy treated Mel Lone Hill for recurring pneumonia in the early 1950s, when she was in her 80sShe came to Mel’s house to doctor him when he was near death. “She had to go find me on the other side. She was probably the only one I knew of who was that powerful.” [St Pierre and Long Soldier, 199] Here the account of the shamanic journey is missing – which is not to say it did not exist, only that it does not appear in print – but stories of soul retrieval from “the other side” recur over and over in the annals of shamanic healing, all over the world.

Yeshe Tsogyal

Stories about the co-founder of Tibetan Buddhism, Yeshe Tsogyel, retain aspects of shamanic culture even though firmly placed within a Buddhist context. She is described as a khandro, or dakini, rather

Yeshe Tsogyel wields the  phurba, a three sided ritual blade
Yeshe Tsogyel wields the phurba, a three sided ritual blade

than as a “shaman.” It is through meditation that she acquires siddhis, or powers: “Where shale and snow met, I found the mystic heat’s inner warmth…” [Dowman, 94]

These powers include the classic shamanic art of spirit flight: “The fledgling dakini-bird nesting in a crag / Could not conceive how easy was flight /Until her skill in the six vehicles was perfected; / But her potential released, wings beating with hidden strength/ Breaking the back of even the razor-edged wind,/ She arrived at whatever distination she chose.” [Dowman, 160]

Thangkas often show Yeshe Tsogyal wielding a phurba, a ritual knife that Himalayan shamans use in healing. It also has an esoteric significance as “remover of obstacles.” Without enumerating all the parallels between Buddhist adepts and Indigenous shamans, I’ll simply note that her siddhis extended even to the power to revive the dead: “In Nepal, I resurrected the corpse of a dead man… My body became a sky-dancing rainbow body…” [Dowman, 94]

Inanna and Ishtar

Returning to the theme of shamanic goddesses, both Inanna and Ishtar are winged, and emanate the me (powers, rites, skills, and offices) from their shoulders. Among these me are religious offices, the scepter, staff – the caduceus occurring first in the Mesopotamian iconography of Ishtar—magicianship, descent to and ascent from underworld, various arts, and five different kinds of drums.

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The drum figures in a story of Inanna planting a magical huluppu tree in her garden. In its three levels came to live the serpent, the wild-woman Lilitu, and Anzu the thunderbird. Inanna caused the magical tree to be felled and a drum and drumstick made from its wood – but gave them to Gilgamesh. So the shamanic power is displaced from Inanna to the male hero, ultimately with negative results.

But it is Inanna/Ishtar who descends to the underworld, passing through its seven gates. She did not perform this pre-eminently shamanic act to bring back a dead soul, however, but as a journey of spiritual discovery and transformation.

Other ancient parallels

Other shamanic women are described as having the power to raise the dead to appear before the living, though not to revive them. The “Witch of Ein Dor” called up the shade of Samuel at the command of Saul. This king had himself persecuted such women, as the biblical account explains; but he set aside the death penalty when he himself needed their services. Her actual title in Hebrew reveals her shamanic dimensions: Baalat Ob, “Mistress of the Talisman,” or to put it another way, “medicine object.”

The Cumaean Sibyl had the power to conduct Aeneas to the Underworld. Mount Cuma overlooks the bay of Naples and a group of volcanic fumeroles called the Flaming Fields. The nearby crater lake Avernus was known as the entrance to Tartarus, land of the dead. Ancient writers referred to an oracle of the dead in this place in the time of Odysseus. [Strabo, V, 4, 5] The rock of mount Cuma was riddled with wide underground galleries and chambers and caves “from which a hundred wide tunnels, a hundred mouths lead, from which as many voices rush: the sibyl’s replies.” [Aeneid VI, online]

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The Sibyl of Cumae conducts Aeneas to the Underworld

According to Livy, the first sibyl came to Cumae after the burning of Troy, but Virgil shows a sibyl already living there when Aeneas fled Troy. Arriving in Italy, he came to consult the Cumaean sibyl, addressing her as “O most holy prophetess, you who see the future…” [Aeneid VI] The old seeress Deiphobe sat in silence, gazing at the floor, and slowly entered trance. She agreed to help the Trojan hero descend to the underworld to search out his father. But first, she told him, he must seek the golden bough (mistletoe, “sacred to Proserpina”) as an offering to the guardians of the gates of Hades.

Then the sibyl guided Aeneas on a journey to the realm of the dead. She began with an offering of four steers and a heifer before “a wide-mouthed cavern, deep and vast and rugged.” Entering the cave, they descended deep into the earth. When challenged by Charon, she opened her robe to show the golden bough, and he allowed them passage. Aeneas communed with his father’s shade, and then the sibyl brought him back to the world of the living.  [Aeneid, VI, 50-1000]

Teresa de Cabora

A modern Mexican woman underwent an otherworld journey that was precipitated by a traumatic attack. A ranch hand beat and raped Teresa Urrea when she was only 15 years old. She remained in a coma for months; doctors then pronounced her dead, and she was very nearly buried. But she revived, sitting up next to the coffin that had been brought in. During the months when she appeared unconscious, she had experienced visions and became transformed into a healer with deep prophetic insight. She began curing people suffering from cancer, blindness, stroke, and paralysis.

Teresa Urrea, la Santa de Cabora
Teresa Urrea, la Santa de Cabora

Teresita became known as la Santa de Cabora, and thousands of Indian people came in a steady stream to the Cabora ranch to see her and be healed by her touch and gaze. This daughter of an Indian teen and a wealthly rancher in Sinaloa was a skilled healer even before her extended near-death experience, having trained under the midwife/curandera la Huila and a Yaqui medicine man.

But Teresa was a political visionary too. She became an inspiration to Indian rebels as a prophetess of Indian rights and a forerunner of the Mexican Revolution who co-authored el Plan de Tomóchic, one of the most radical declarations of human rights ever written. It called for new laws “declaring both men and women, whites and blacks, natives and foreigners, rich and poor, have the the same rights, duties and privileges and that they be absolutely equal before the law.” We have yet to attain those goals today.

For more about medicine women’s journeys in the spirit, take a look at the video Woman Shaman: the Ancients (released in April, 2013).

Sources

Covell, Alan Carter, Folk Art and Magic: Shamanism in Korea. Seoul: Hollym (1986)

Tara the Antisocial Social Worker, “How a Woman Becomes a Goddess: Pali Kongju” The Daily Kos, Aug 19, 2009. Online: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2009/08/19/769300/-How-a-Woman-Becomes-a-Goddess-Pali-Kongju Accessed Dec. 29, 2012

Lee, Jung Young Lee. Korean Shamanistic Rituals. Walter de Gruyter, 1981

Dowman, Keith. Sky Dancer: The Secret Life and Songs of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyel, Ithaca NY: Snow Lion, 1996

Mark St Pierre and Tilda Long Soldier, Walking in the Sacred Manner: Healers, Dreamers, and Pipe Carriers-Medicine Women of the Plains Indians. New York: Touchstone/ Simon & Schuster, 1995