“I am dark, but lovely,” proclaims the Shulamite in the Song of Songs. The highest and purest form of the feminine archetype is Sophia, the white dove symbolizing the wisdom of the feminine side of God and the deepest wisdom of the soul. But deep within the world of matter and flesh beats the heart of the dark goddess, whose wisdom is of no lesser mettle. What can we learn from her?
Gustave Moreau, The Song of Songs
I remember my feeling of rapture and intense esthetic satisfaction when I saw for the first time the Black Madonna of Einsiedeln, Switzerland. She holds a baby Jesus who himself has a black bird in his hand. She is commonly associated with healing and miracles, similarly to the celebrated Polish Black Madonna, whose image is the holiest religious painting in my native country. Thousands of people make a pilgrimage every year to pay homage to the “Queen and Protectress of Poland.”
The Madonna of Einsiedeln
Polish Black Madonna
Both Madonnas are subject of legends and enormous reverence. The Black Madonna chapel is located where previously was the hermitage of St Meinrad, who started the cult of Mary in Einsiedeln (the word Einsiedeln itself means ‘hermitage’). He was said to have rescued two black ravens threatened by a pair of hawks. The two ravens are now the emblem of the monastery. It is an unusual legend because the forces of darkness and dark primeval prophetic wisdom (the ravens) are threatened by the forces of light and consciousness (the hawks). Carl Jung believed that the Black Madonna of Einsiedeln to be a manifestation of the Egyptian goddess Isis, whose cult had spread in Europe before the advent of Christianity.
Horus and Isis
The monastery of Einsiedeln is located in the Dark Forest, an area believed to be a centre of powerful magnetic energy of the earth. This is only what I heard, I do not pretend to know anything about that subject. But if there were a grain of truth in it, the healing properties of the wonderful Madonna would be strongly connected with her place of residence and with the earth itself. All I can vouch for is that she indeed radiates an extraordinary aura of wonder and mystery. Also the cult of Polish Madonna has a lot of ecstatic and trance elements to it.
Having been raised in a Catholic country and family, I still remember a lot of religious hymns. I particularly remember these lines from the hymn to the Black Madonna: “Oh Madonna, Black Madonna, it is good to be your child, it is good to hide in your arms.” Black Madonnas appear to be earthly, maternal, wise and possessing magical and healing qualities. China Galland, author of Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna, wrote this about the Madonna of Einsiedeln: “this is the darkness of … the womb, of the earth, of the unknown, of sorrow, of the imagination, the darkness of death, of the human heart, of the unconscious, of the darkness beyond light, of matter, of the descent, of the body, of the shadow of the Most High.” Erich Neumann, a student of Jung and an authority on all things related to the sacred feminine, is an author of a book of essays “The Fear of the Feminine,” where he writes very eloquently about the earth archetype, which the Einsiedeln Madonna seems to channel very strongly. I find Neumann’s work extremely illuminating and very complex.
He puts an equality mark between the Earth and the Dark Mother, whose womb begets all living things and who, in her aspect as the Terrible Mother, devours everything that is born, swallowing it back into herself. She is “the grave, the flesh-devouring sarcophagus, hell and the underworld,…, the inside of the earth, the dark abyss of everything living.” Looking at Madonna of Einsiedeln, I sensed that both extremes of the archetype (creation and destruction) meet in her. Her face seemed to be hiding mysteries of initiation and ancient wisdom. Neumann emphasizes that initiation and ancient mysteries rituals always took place underground, in caves, i.e. in the uterus of the Great Mother. “Inire” means to go into, go deeper, go inside, facing the realm of dark instinctuality and sacred sexuality. On the path of his individuation every hero needs to encounter and integrate this perilous darkness, often represented by a monster or a dragon. Says Neumann:
Leaping into the hell of one’s passions and into the emotional side of the underlying nature of humanity is truly a fate that makes plain once and for all to everyone who has experienced it why it is that man’s anxiety over consciousness has done everything to denigrate this earth aspect, to warn against it, and to brand it as “the quintessence of danger.”
Throughout the ages and up to this day the woman has been accused of enslaving the male, seducing him, bounding him to vile earthly things and endangering the stability of his conscious, methodical, well-organized and purposeful existence. Freud spoke of men splitting the image of the female into the holy one – the mother, the wife, the lawful partner, and the dirty, earthy one – the seductive lover, the evil witch or the prostitute. Jung made us acutely aware that the dark feminine is also a part of the male psyche and is met by him through projection.
A fascinating archetype of the dark feminine, who seems to personify all the negatively charged and rejected parts of the feminine psyche, is Lilith, Adam’s first sexual partner, created from dark earth, she refused to be subservient to him. She was banished from Eden and subsequently Eva took her place as a lawful wife of Adam. Lilith has had her renaissance in the last decades among feminists, Jungian psychologists, astrologers and other New Age thinkers. The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone of the emerging sacred feminine.
It is important to remember that Lilith is the archetype present in the psyche of both men and women. At its undeveloped stage it symbolizes rage caused by rejection and not fitting in the system or the established (patriarchal) order. Connie Zweig and Steve Wolf write about Lilith in Romancing the Shadow:
For women today who have been victimized and rendered passive and obedient, there is gold lying hidden in this shadow character: She can represent a woman’s capacity to say no, her desire for equality and independence, and her natural, wild instincts, which may return while healing.
I have a feeling it is a good approximation of the meaning of Lilith, but I also think that her rage an indignation is not something that can be easily disregarded and should be more emphasized. For me she represents the forces of chaos, pure instinct and an overpowering will to merge with a partner. However, she also symbolizes fear and anxiety connected with intimacy. As Dallett puts it:
If you cannot express love because you feel too vulnerable, if you are afraid to care, lest you become dependent, look for Lilith.
Cold and unfeeling, she becomes invulnerable in order to protect herself from being hurt. She cuts off that part of her which is connected with dependence and love of others. It is extremely hard to be an independent woman in a patriarchal culture. This is why most women need to repress their wild side, to deny a vital part of themselves that Lilith symbolizes. But she raises her head in the form of rage and vengefulness (overt or hidden), coldness or cruel speech. Says Dallett:
In the most primal depths of the psyche, Eve and Lilith carry the two halves of feminine wholeness. For several millennia, Eve dominated Western culture. Lilith has scarcely been permitted to exist.
We are fascinated by independent women: the media, literature and popular music testify to that. Do you know the amazing song Venus in Furs by the Velvet Underground? For me she is present in that song. But she is often like a wonderful beast admired from afar because hardly anybody is brave enough to approach her. There are male characters in art and myth, who were able to tame her wild nature. One was Aragorn and his horse Brego. Neumann wrote beautifully about the aspect of the goddess associated with wild nature – he called her the Lady of the Beasts.
The Great Goddess evinces her rule over the bull and the lions. And for millenniums she stands or sits enthroned upon lions, as the Mesopotamian goddess Lilith of night, evil, and death, winged, bird-footed, and accompanied by owls.
Neumann seems to merge Ishtar and Lilith, which is a very interesting supposition. Ishtar or Inanna, the chief female deity of Babylon/Mesopotamia, had lions as her chief attributes.
In a well-known myth she undergoes an initiation by descending to the realm of her sister Ereshkigal, lady of the underworld. She dies and is reborn as the one who has successfully tamed and integrated her own dark aspect – Lilith (it is important to remember, though that Lilith can never be completely tamed).
The Lady of the Beasts is beautifully portrayed in the following Homeric hymn:
After her came gray wolves, fawning on her, and grim-eyed lions, ad bears, and fleet leopards, ravenous for deer; and she was glad in heart to see them, and put desire in their breasts, so that they all mated, two together, about the shadowy vales.
Artemis, the wild lunar goddess of hunt, wild animals and wilderness, was the most widely venerated Lady of the Beasts. Neumann wrote of her as the goddess of the “outside” – she as huntress dominates the world of wild instincts and rules the world which lies outside of official culture and consciousness. She is a vessel of mysterious life processes, a virgin goddess who, like nature, begets herself without the need of a male. Historically it was the woman who tamed domestic animals and harnessed their power for the benefit of household. Neumann suggests also that it was the female who tamed and domesticated the male, creating human culture. Through her power of love, she sublimates all life and “raises it to a development where, without losing its bond with the root and formulation, it achieves the highest forms of psychic reality.” This sublimation is symbolized by her wings. Not only Isis or Ishtar have wings but even Lilith does, which suggests her capacity for sublimation and transformation. The opposite end to sublimation is abasement – we all remember the sorceress Circe who transformed men in the Odyssey into pigs. Neumann warns:
And how close ecstasy is to madness, enthusiasm to death, creativeness to psychosis, is shown by mythology, by the history of religions, and by the lives of innumerable great men for whom the gift from the depths has spelled doom.
One of the chief characteristics of the Lady of the Beasts, or of the goddess in her darker aspect, is her capacity for wrath and outrage. There are numerous stories in myth on goddesses exacting their revenge if some kind of natural law has been broken. One of them is the story of the Ethiopian sphinx that Hera sends against the people of Thebes. This is the dark aspect of the Sphinx, not the sublimated Egyptian one. The Sphinx from Oedipus myth is merciless and devours human flesh. She is out of control, cannot be transformed and has to be destroyed.
Gustave Moreau, Oedipus and the Sphinx
But there is another mythical story, which tells of a sublimation of wrathful instincts. It is an Egyptian myth of Sekhmet. Jean Shinoda Bolen dedicates part of her book Goddesses in Older Women to this goddess. Sekhmet, the lionhead goddess presided over divine order. She was the goddess of wrath and peace. Her name meant “the powerful.”
Statue of Sekhmet in the Turn Museum, Italy
In a famous Sekhmet myth, humans conspire to overthrow the gods and take over their power. The god Ra sends Sekhmet to punish the evil plotters. Sekhmet, similarly to the Indian goddess Kali, goes on a slaughtering rampage, feasting on human flesh. She gets intoxicated on her rage and blood and cannot be restrained. Gods have to prepare a magical mind-altering potion to calm her down. In the end, Sekhmet is welcome back by Ra, who addresses her as the One Who Comes in Peace. Clearly, the myth seems to show that at times peace can only be achieved through a period of destruction and righteous anger that can redress all the wrongdoing.
The Polish Black Madonna has got two scars on her face. She, like Lilith, is a wounded female. A legend says a soldier slashed the painting when the monastery was besieged. When I look at her I see noble suffering and wisdom resulting from forgiveness and acceptance. Her blackness and vibrance are balanced by love and wisdom. She looks like the dark goddess who has found her peace.