The Suffering of Perseus and Medusa

“I wasn’t hurt enough when I should have been, Kino admitted to himself. When I should have felt real pain, I stifled it. I didn’t want to take it on, so I avoided facing up to it. Which is why my heart is so empty now. The snakes have grabbed that spot and are trying to hide their coldly beating hearts there.”

Haruki Murakami, “Kino”, a short story included in the collection “Men Without Women”

This is so typical of Murakami’s writing. Although the passage seems ascetic, it opens a vast psychological space. The snakes offer a startling image, which immediately brings to mind the myth of Medusa. I have already approached her here but Murakami made me think of her again. Coincidentally, I have recently seen a BBC documentary “Civilizations”, where in episode 5, “The Triumph of Art”, Simon Schama devoted some time to Benvenuto Cellini’s masterpiece “Perseus with the Head of Medusa.” Several years ago I was lucky to see the sculpture at the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. Schama marveled at the beauty of Medusa and at the emotional power of the whole piece. He said:

“All the ancients Perseuses and Medusas were contrasts between beauty as hero and grotesque Gorgon. Not here. Cellini has the genius crazy idea of making them interchangeably androgynously beautiful. Boy girl, girl boy both looking down, even the hairdos aren’t actually that different – tousled curls of writhing snakes. Cellini is a sorcerer, an alchemist. He has made hard metal sweat with the exertion of killing. He has turned that hot alloy back into liquid, the blood coursing through the hero’s body, the blood pouring from Medusa’s sliced away neck. And remember, even dead, her looks can kill you.”

Benvenuto Cellini, “Perseus with the Head of Medusa”

The myth of Medusa can be interpreted on so many different levels. For Valerie Estelle Frankel, author of From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine’s Journey Through Myth and Legend, the myth pertains to the haling of the wounded shadow. When Medusa is raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple, the goddess is so outraged that she turns Medusa into a monster. This frozen monster form serves as defense against a deep trauma:

“Medusa is safe forever in her monster form, safer even than Athena in her armor. This form has defenses: the venom of the snakes, the banishment to the impenetrable underworld, and the famous petrifying gaze. Medusa’s stare is the ultimate power—one that says “No, don’t come any closer!

Medusa dwells in the underworld, crouched in the safety of this still half-life, where nothing changes, where no one dies or is born or is harmed.”

On the one hand, the head of Medusa represents “a source of feminine power raped by male authority.” However, she may also stand for the wounded heart, the bottled up fury of all of us, regardless of gender. Comes Perseus as the wounded masculine hero:

“Medusa senses someone is there and turns her gaze on him. But he is a victim as she is, cast into the seas by his grandfather, ignored by his father, with mother and self endangered by the patriarchy in the form of King Polydectes. Perseus holds the mirror that to inner self, but more, he is Medusa’s inner self, the frightened child behind the rage-filled gaze that Medusa cannot outstare.

Confronted with this wounded hero so like herself, Medusa succumbs and allows her barriers to be broken, allows her return to the world above. This, like all growth, requires great pain; Perseus’ sword slices Medusa’s head from her body. But there is also glorious birth as children, once sired by Poseidon, spring forth: Pegasus, beloved of the Muses, and the golden hero Chrysaor. Walling herself off has resulted in stagnation, isolation, as Medusa rages and nurses her wounds. But until now, she has failed to grow beyond them. With a sword-strike, with a mirror, Perseus opens her to her painful past, forcing her to confront it, accept it, and move forward. Medusa is no longer frozen, unable to give birth to her desires and needs. She can finally return to life.”

Master Cellini managed to show just that in his sculpture – Perseus and Medusa united in their human suffering.

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On Play

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “Children’s Games”

The vision of the world as an unfolding game is a very alluring idea. Once you start viewing all reality through that lens, it is quite hard to step back into ordinary perception. In Hinduism, the concept of Lila, divine play, is used to describe the creative, joyful and spontaneous activity of Brahman, the supreme existence and the Divine Ground of All. “It is a spirit leaping forward to be pursued and enjoyed and, ultimately, understood,” as it was expressed by an anonymous theosophy master here . From that perspective, the world arose as play and it unfolds as such. At the deepest level, to paraphrase Krishnamurti, the purpose of life is nothing but living itself.

Betty Heimann, a German professor of Sanskrit and a renowned expert on Indian studies, who died in 1961, wrote the following on the relation of the concept of Lila to time:

“As regards the concept of Time, lila represents continuity. It is well worth noting that the Greeks from the time of the pre-Socratics establish the necessity of a ‘kairos,’ of the adequate moment when to start with adequate means to achieve one single purpose and intent. India, on the other hand … never felt the need of the effortful moment and directed purpose for one single end. Instead of limiting herself to a ‘kairos,’ a straight line towards a certain end, she thinks in series of continuing receding preceding waves: polar existence is ever present, simultaneously and successively. Heraclitus, then, the Western thinker who more than all others approaches the Indian world of thought, significantly grasps the concept of the ‘aion,’ the creative continuity of time and life force, under the simile of an ever youthful child at play. In his Fragment 52 he asserts that the ‘aion’ is a child playing with dice. The supreme government of the world lies in the hands of a child.”

From University of Ceylon Review vol. III, No.2,1945,pp 29-34, link

Shiva and Parvati at the game of dice

The Puranas (ancient Hindu texts) contain a story of Shiva playing the game of dice with Parvati. This game can be viewed as a metaphor of how the world came into manifestation, a tale of the birth of consciousness, as writes Richard Smoley in The Dice Game of Shiva: How Consciousness Creates the Universe. Shiva personifies pure consciousness, the self itself (Purusha) while Parvati stands for the contents of consciousness, i.e. the world or experience (Prakriti). Before the universe is manifested, consciousness and its contents are united in primordial sleep. The dice game introduced to the divine pair by a demon of discord symbolizes “the beginning of manifestation,” as self and the other (Shiva and Parvati) begin to consciously relate. Having been defeated in the game, Shiva, unperturbed, simply retreats to the forest. As Smoley explains, consciousness can detach from experience:

“You are not your thoughts; you are not your feelings; you are not even your actions. This realization in expressed in the myth of the dice game: Shiva, having ‘lost’ all his attributes to Parvati, goes off, unruffled, to the forest to live the life of an ascetic. Purusha has no attributes; they all belong to prakriti; that is why purusha always loses the game. But since these attributes are not part of it to begin with, it loses nothing in actuality.”

The dice itself embraces consciousness and experience in its symbolic construction. A marvellous explanation of the symbolic meaning of the dice can be found on the Theosophy Trust website here . As a cube, the dice symbolizes the earthly manifestation (prakriti). However, it is a well-known fact that the top and bottom faces of the dice always add up to seven, which is a holy number with rich symbolic significance. First of all, it reconciles the square of matter with the heavenly triangle (three being a number symbolically linked with god and goddess). Like the rainbow bridge, the number seven links the unmanifested divine reality with the manifested earthly realm. According to Cirlot, the author of the Dictionary of Symbols, the seventh day of rest after six days of creation corresponds to the centre and the return to the Divine Source. For more on number seven, see here .

Play as an activity, not only the one involving the dice, has a way of transporting the participants from ordinary life to the realm of enchantment. In a classic book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, written in the 1938 by a Dutch scholar J. Hiuzinga, humans are imagined as always engaging in ludere – Latin for to play. Play transcends the immediate needs of life; it denotes “a stepping out of ‘real’ life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own.” Play creates beauty and order that it brings temporarily to the mundane sphere of chaos and confusion. It draws a magic circle around the play activity and, similarly to a ritual, “transports the participants to another world.” Huizinga asserts firmly that all the “great archetypal activities of human society are all permeated with play from the start.” For him, play is older than culture and society. What is more, culture and society arise from play:

“As a rule the play element gradually recedes into the background, being absorbed for the most part in the sacred sphere. The remainder crystallizes as knowledge: folklore, poetry, philosophy, or in the various forms of judicial and social life.”

The crystallized seriousness of our institutions, of all civilization, of all our truths and duties, rests on a magic cloud of enchanted play.

The Theosophy Trust website also contains an entry devoted to symbolism of games ( Through games, “the potential perfection inherent in the macrocosmic plan may be gradually realized in the microcosmic nature of man.” In games universal truths are embodied, for they offer “means of transcending the ephemeral flux of external appearances.” The ball is seen as an object with magical powers:

“To release these powers has been part of the fascination of the game, and when the powers represent a victory over various obstacles or even darkness itself, the result is truly cathartic for both players and spectators. Pitting oneself against objects, forces, others or even against oneself releases and cleanses the emotions, whilst onlookers purge themselves of anger, malice and frustration.”

But, how to explain the violence, addictions and other distortions that haunt human as the playing animal? From a theosophical perspective, this shows the humankind’s inability to come to terms with the deeper level of the psyche, where the universal game between good and evil is being eternally waged. Gamblers, in turn, are merely revealing their contempt for authority and the restrictions of living in the society:

“They are thereby displaying a perverse unwillingness to accept their own legitimate karma as well as the collective karma in which they find themselves enmeshed.”


Eric Berne, the Canadian psychiatrist famous for creating the theory of transactional analysis and applying game theory to psychiatry, believed that children are born princes and princesses until their parents turn them into frogs. A healthy ego, according to transactional theory, should be able to switch between the roles of a child, parent or adult according to needs and circumstances. However, I agree with Rilke about one thing: “…we are always closest to the center of our lives at the point where according to our own means we most closely resemble the child!” (found in “Letters on Life”)

Jan Steen, “Card Players Quarrelling”

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Native Americans: Stories in Stone

I. “Whenever, in the course of the daily hunt, the red hunter comes upon a scene that is strikingly beautiful or sublime–a black thundercloud with the rainbow’s glowing arch above the mountain; a white waterfall in the heart of a green gorge; a vast prairie tinged with the blood-red of sunset–he pauses for an instant in the attitude of worship.”

Charles Eastman, “The Soul of the Indian”

II. “In the world where I was raised, life has only a brief moment of flowering — the time of physical strength for men, the season of youthful beauty and childbearing for women. All else is a time of becoming or a time of decline. Rather than looking at our lives like the seasons, where each has a richness that belongs to no other, we look at them like a flower that moves from bud to bloom to gradual decay and death. Only the time of bloom is seen as the fullness of life. Native people like Joe do not see life this way. They see it as a passage through spiritual seasons where we gain knowledge and richness as we pass from one season to the next. Only a person in winter has seen them all, so only a person in winter is granted the respect that comes with full spiritual knowledge. Far from being vestigial or in eclipse, the elders, who have lived through all of life’s seasons, are the honored ones, the crown jewels of the Native family.”

Kent Nerburn, “Voices in the Stones: Life Lessons from the Native Way”

III. “There were ideals and practices in the life of my ancestors that have not been improved upon by the present-day civilization.”

Luther Standing Bear

Luther Standing Bear

Mount Rushmore is a landmark with complicated history. The portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln were carved onto the Black Hills rock, which is sacred to Native Americans, who were granted this territory in a treaty of 1868. The treaty read, “As long as the rivers run and the grasses grow and trees bear leaves, Paha Sapa, the Black Hills, will forever and ever be the sacred land of the Indians.” Like many promises bestowed on Native Americans, this one was also broken. After gold was found there, the Hills were immediately seized by the whites. The land is still under dispute.

Black Hills National Forest, via Wikipedia

Some thirty kilometres from Mount Rushmore another leader’s portrait is being carved onto rock – the statue of Crazy Horse, a Lakota warrior. The memorial was commissioned by Henry Standing Bear, to be sculpted by Korczak Ziolkowski, an American sculptor of Polish descent. Ziolkowski worked on the monument for thirty-six years, until his death. Throughout that time, he refused to take any salary. He carved his own epitaph, which can be viewed on the site:

“KORCZAK Storyteller in Stone
May His Remains Be Left Unknown.”

Crazy Horse Memorial

Rather paradoxically, throughout his short life Crazy Horse consistently refused to be photographed. He did not want anyone to know his face and yet his carved head is 27 metres high. Perhaps there is no other way of raising public awareness about the First Nations but to erect a giant memorial as a counterpoint to the existing White American one. But the Native soul is in actuality humble and alien to ostentation. This was beautifully expressed in a landmark book by Charles Eastman, who was a physician and an activist of Santee Dakota, English and French ancestry. In The Soul of the Indian: An Interpretation, he wrote:

“There were no temples or shrines among us save those of nature. Being a natural man, the Indian was intensely poetical. He would deem it sacrilege to build a house for Him who may be met face to face in the mysterious, shadowy aisles of the primeval forest, or on the sunlit bosom of virgin prairies, upon dizzy spires and pinnacles of naked rock, and yonder in the jeweled vault of the night sky!”

Charles Eastman

Quite different, much less conspicuous but not less powerful stone carvings are mentioned in another worthy book devoted to the spirituality of Native Americans, namely Voices in the Stones: Life Lessons from the Native Way by Kent Nerburn. He recalls a time when two of his Native American friends accompanied him to see ancient carvings on stones known as petroglyphs, located east of the South Dakota border. The two Indians, father and son, did not try to rationalize the Great Mystery; they did not strive to understand the meaning of the ancient carvings, but instead performed an ancient ritual that involved burning sage over the rocks.

Nerburn explains that In Native American tradition, everything has a voice, the whole nature calls out to us with the voice of the Great Mystery. The stones and the soil call to us with the voices of our ancestors who died or who were buried there. In some places, such as The Wounded Knee or in Auschwitz, the stones and the earth speak louder, so the more sensitive of us have to cover their ears.

In a striking passage from Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections, he remembers an encounter with an older of the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, who said to him:

“How cruel the whites are: their lips are thin, their noses sharp, their faces furrowed and distorted by holes. Their eyes have a staring expression. They are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something, they are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want, we do not understand them, we think that they are mad.” I asked him why he thought the whites were all mad. “They say they think with their heads,” he replied.

“Why, of course. What do you think with?” I asked him in surprise.

“We think here,” he said, indicating his heart.”

When such two radically different visions and ways of living clash, disaster ensues. If stones were taken to represent atrocities committed on Native Americans, the Wounded Knee massacre would be the last stone thrown on top of a high mountain. A particularly distressing to me was the story of the Osage murders, of which I had been unaware. This nation was repeatedly stripped of their land until, finally, they managed to acquire some barren, unfriendly rocks in Oklahoma, which no one else wanted. The situation changed drastically when oil was discovered in the area and the Indians got extremely wealthy. As a result, they immediately became target of “theft, graft and mercenary marriage.” They were kidnapped, shot and poisoned often by those that posed as their friends or who were their spouses in the eyes of the law. In four years dubbed as the Reign of Terror sixty Osage Indians were murdered. Most of the murders were never prosecuted.

The words of Martin Luther King who said that he American nation was born in genocide express a shameful truth that cannot be hidden any longer. Historian Howard Zinn agrees:

“And so, Indian Removal, as it has been politely called, cleared the land for white occupancy between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, cleared it for cotton in the South and grain in the North, for expansion, immigration, canals, railroads, new cities, and the building of a huge continental empire clear across to the Pacific Ocean. The cost in human life cannot be accurately measured, in suffering not even roughly measured. Most of the history books given to children pass quickly over it.”

And yet, the Native Way is neither buried nor forgotten. Quietly, the wheel of history is turning again. As Nerburn puts it in the epilogue to his book, “We could destroy the First Peoples physically, but we could not erase their presence from our hearts. And so we hid them, buried them deep in our cultural psyche, just as we had buried so many of them in the earth they once had called their own. They became the shadow of our cultural guilt.“


At the Wounded Knee site

American Indians are so much more than the shadows. Their teaching us about the Great Spirit that unifies all opposites, bringing about the necessary reconciliation, appeals to ever increasing number of people. The indigenous values of respect for nature and inclusion are making a relentless resurgence. We are slowly realizing that domination has to be replaced by understanding, as Nerburn writes, “…your task in life is not to dominate, but to understand; to learn the rules of the universe and come into right relationship with them.”


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“Stone” by Charles Simic

“Go inside a stone
That would be my way.
Let somebody else become a dove
Or gnash with a tiger’s tooth.
I am happy to be a stone.

From the outside the stone is a riddle:
No one knows how to answer it.
Yet within, it must be cool and quiet
Even though a cow steps on it full weight,
Even though a child throws it in a river,
The stone sinks, slow, unperturbed
To the river bottom
Where the fishes come to knock on it
And listen.

I have seen sparks fly out
When two stones are rubbed.
So perhaps it is not dark inside after all;
Perhaps there is a moon shining
From somewhere, as though behind a hill—
Just enough light to make out
The strange writings, the star charts
On the inner walls. “

Stone Circle in Węsiory, Poland; photo by Elwira Kruszelnicka (more magnificent photos of the place here:

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Jung on Alchemy (8): the Coniunctio – part 2 – the White Stone

“When God, disgusted with man,

Turned towards heaven.

And man, disgusted with God,

Turned towards Eve,

Things looked like falling apart.


But Crow        Crow

Crow nailed them together,

Nailing Heaven and earth together—


So man cried, but with God’s voice.

And God bled, but with man’s blood.

Then Heaven and earth creaked at the joint

Which became gangrenous and stank

A horror beyond redemption.


The agony did not diminish.


Man could not be man nor God God.


The agony





Crying: ‘This is my Creation,’

Flying the black flag of himself.”

Ted Hughes, “Crow Blacker than Ever” (from “Crow: the Life and Songs of the Crow”)

It is hard to find a better literary portrait of the inner disiunctio – the disintegrated, wounded personality at war with itself – than Ted Hughes’s collection of poems written some time after the death of Sylvia Plath. It is well known that she chose to end her life by means of a gas oven after finding out about his affair with Assia Wevill. What is much less known, though, is that six years later Wevill also committed suicide gassing herself together with their little daughter. Sylvia Plath is an icon of a feminist movement. Many believe that Ted Hughes “suppressed her genius, then broke her fragile spirit when he ran off with another woman” (quoted after The New York Times In a poignantly prophetic poem called “On Looking into the Eyes of a Demon Lover” she wrote:

“Here are two pupils
whose moons of black
transform to cripples
all who look:

each lovely lady
who peers inside
take on the body
of a toad.

Within these mirrors
the world inverts:
the fond admirer’s
burning darts

turn back to injure
the thrusting hand
and inflame to danger
the scarlet wound.

I sought my image
in the scorching glass,
for what fire could damage
a witch’s face?

So I stared in that furnace
where beauties char
but found radiant Venus
reflected there.”

The poem strikes me with her typical  combination of power and vulnerability, which render Plath’s writing so mesmerizing, emotionally raw and feminine.

The archetypal drama of love, death and rebirth lies at the heart of the alchemical coniunctio. In the previous post (, I focused on the first image in the series of twenty woodcuts comprising the sixteenth-century alchemical treatise Rosarium Philosophorum. In the next nine images the solar and lunar aspects of the soul depicted in the first image are personified as the King and the Queen. Their union leads to the emergence of the hermaphrodite, who is “the parent of the lapis,” i.e. the philosopher’s stone.

Regarding the second image, Jung points out in The Psychology of Transference:

“The two give each other their left hands, and this can hardly be unintentional since it is contrary to custom. The gesture points to a closely guarded secret, to the ‘left-hand path,’ as the Indian Tantrists call their Shiva and Shakti worship.”

It is apparent that there is an emotional and instinctual aspect to the encounter, though the pair are still fully clad. The four flowers, as was the case in the previous image, stand for the four elements while the fifth is the quintessence brought down from above by the White Dove – the Holy Ghost or the celestial aspect of Mercurius. McClean expands on this in his excellent analysis on the alchemy website:

“However, from above, from the higher spiritual realm indicated by the Star, a bird descends bearing a further two-blossomed flower and brings a stronger unity into the picture. Thus even at the beginning of the work, the alchemist will have help from the spiritual world. As he tentatively begins the task of uniting the inner polarities, spiritual help will descend to him as a gift, a spiritual grace. For the individual alchemist this will possibly take the form of perceptions, perhaps inspirational dreams, and positive realizations that give him an inner security, a sureness that he is on the right path.”


In illustration 3, “man and woman confront each other in unabashed naturalness,” says Jung in The Psychology of Transference. There is a uniting symbol between the couple, which they are both touching with their hands. The white dove appears as the mediating spirit signaling an impending union. “The two archetypal facets of the soul are here proffering to each other, in the form of flowers, an aspect of their forces,” comments McClean.

Image 3

Next, the royal couple descend into a bath. They immerse themselves in the unconscious psyche because “our stone is to be extracted from the nature of the two bodies.”  Jung comments:

“…the earth-spirit Mercurius in his watery form now begins to attack the royal pair from below, just as he had previously descended from above in the shape of the dove. The contact of left hands in Figure 2 has evidently roused the spirit of the deep and called up a rush of water.”

Image 5

In illustration 5 the male and the female merge together in sexual intercourse, with the male being an active transformative force exerting influence on the passive female. The fruit of the union is a hermaphrodite being. The opposites have united and what follows is a cessation of all energy. But out of this deathly darkness, in McClean’s commentary “a masculine soul element …rises upwards … towards the realm of the Spirit.” And further on:

“Through this active penetration of the inner feminine by the masculine polarity of the soul, this aspect of the inner life has achieved a certain ability to ascend within the inner world to the realm of the Spirit.”

Image 8

Image 9

Shakti, the feminine aspect, chooses the way downward towards darkness, death, the earth and gross matter. She rests in inaction, experiencing “the primal darkness of the unconscious” (McClean). Shiva has ascended. In illustration 8 the motionless hermaphrodite is revivified by raindrops from “the spiritual clouds” (McClean). The feminine aspect of the soul is purified from above. Next, the male aspect reunites with the feminine. According to McClean, this phase of the coniunctio enables the soul to gain “a mastery over the lunar element within its being.” Illustration 10 presents the naked hermaphrodite with wings indicating spiritual development, standing on the lunar crescent. The Moon Tree is featured on the left, the raven on the right. The colours of the three snakes united in the chalice take us back to the first illustration of the mercurial fountain.

Image 10

Image 10

In his book Kinds of Power, James Hillman talks about deepening as a necessary aspect of growth, as “the downward direction refers to the deepening of feelings and relational insights.” In order to grow, the soul needs to descend and deepen into the lunar sphere of feelings. This is the essence of the alchemical White Stone.


Link to all the images:

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Land Art by Andy Goldsworthy


“I believe in the practice and philosophy of what we have agreed to call magic, in what I must call the evocation of spirits, though I do not know what they are, in the power of creating magical illusions, in the visions of truth in the depths of the mind when the eyes are closed; and I believe in three doctrines, which have, as I think, been handed down from early times, and been the foundations of nearly all magical practices. These doctrines are—

(1) That the borders of our minds are ever shifting, and that many minds can flow into one another, as it were, and create or reveal a single mind, a single energy.

(2) That the borders of our memories are as shifting, and that our memories are a part of one great memory, the memory of Nature herself.

(3) That this great mind and great memory can be evoked by symbols.”

W.B. Yeats, “Ideas of Good and Evil”

I am looking forward to seeing a new documentary by Thomas Riedelsheimer about the work of Andy Goldsworthy, a Scottish land artist. As he works, “getting under the skin of the earth,” engaging deeply with the elements, he taps into the memory of nature, evoking it by means of symbols. The Hebrew/Greek word ‘archetype’ understood as the original pattern is also linguistically related to “mark of a seal,” while the adjective “archetypos” can be translated as “stamped first.” In a way, Goldsworthy “stamps” the earth with his archetypal creations, and by so doing he makes us see the symbolism that nature hides in plain sight. In one of his works, he even imprints the earth with his own body.

In 2001 Thomas Riedelsheimer made the first documentary about Goldsworthy entitled “Rivers and Tides.” You can see it here:

Goldsworthy is not a man of many words. He would much rather dialogue with us through his art. But what he says is quite powerful. Far from being just decorative, his art invites us to look deeper at nature, which he does not see as just pastoral or pretty. As he is making his ephemeral stone creations on the beach, which within minutes will be flooded by the tide, he states, “My art is trying to understand the stone.” He goes on to say that he offers his work to the sea as a gift. The sea will transform it beyond what he can imagine. He has a deep awareness of roots, what is hidden, the life processes working in darkness. He enjoys taking his work to the very edge of collapse. What accompanies him is a constant amazement that he is actually alive. The black holes he adds to the landscape are particularly striking; they are reminiscent of absence, void, death, but also of the space where life germinates.


art 140



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The Black Madonna

A striking poster advertises an exhibition dedicated to the history of 1000 years of pilgrimage to Einsiedeln Abbey, the seat of the Black Madonna. We see her red robe and the crown but the statue is not there. A veil is all there is. The energetic, blood red colour of the cape arrests and fills with awe. It dresses up the unconscious, adorns the shadow, crowning darkness and emptiness. “I am all that has been and is and shall be; and no mortal has ever lifted my veil,” – the words inscribed on the statue of Isis of Sais come to mind. All the symbolic representations of the divine are just what comes from our attempts at peering through the veil; this is why we communicate the mystery or perhaps how the mystery communicates with us. In our daily world biased towards clarity, obviousness, growth, achievement and tangible benefits, the Black Madonna is an omen of wholeness that we have lost on the way. She heals by making whole, soothes and warms the cold hearts, projecting boundless forgiveness and compassion. She is not always meek, but can be quite defiant and disruptive in relation to the stale status quo. Like the unconscious, she is the great balancing force. The weak, the sick, the disenfranchised, the disempowered, women, strangers, outsiders and foreigners, have all sought refuge under her mantle. It was believed in the earlier centuries that only the Black Madonna can show the right way to murderers and other criminals. Until the eighteenth centuries convicted criminals of Switzerland were able to atone for their guilt and go free if they made a pilgrimage to the holy statue.

The capes of the Black Madonna of Einsiedeln

There are many covert ways in which the church still try to downplay her vibrant and growing cult. Her blackness, for example, is usually explained by the prolonged exposure of the statue to candle smoke. This is quite hard to believe, since the numerous Black Madonna statues have sprung up in numerous places in the world immediately in their black glory. According to legends, the statues were often found by children, shepherds or animals close to caves or streams, often buried in the earth. The mystery surrounding their sudden emergence is symbolically very fitting. She shows herself to the humble and the weak, her source of origin being veiled in mystery. She does not seek a central or prominent role, and yet she is the centre of the mandala, the creative matrix from which all life came and to which it will return. Although her face is featured on the poster advertising the exhibition, she is just but one of the themes of it. Still, it was easily noticeable how crowds gravitated towards and concentrated in the sections dedicated to her. Disappointingly, the role of Forest Sisters, one of whom offered the statue of the Black Madonna to St Meinrad, the founder of the monastery, was not acknowledged. Nothing is said of the appalling treatment of the Sisters by the male establishment of the Monastery. Namely, they were driven out of the Dark Forest, where they lived in a peaceful community gathering herbs and healing the sick, banned from visiting the Black Madonna statue, ordered to wear black and had to lead a convent life in the nearby town (see my previous post on the subject  As a consolation, the sisters received a copy of the original Black Madonna statue. What is more, the lay public were also restricted by the Benedictine monks from adoring the statue right until the beginning of the twentieth century. Older female inhabitants of Einsiedeln still remember the times when they had to sneak in to the church to pray in front of the Black Madonna.

The Black Madonna of Einsiedeln

I am Black and Lovely: the Mystery of the Black Madonna by Margrit Rosa Schmid is a booklet rich in detail that accompanies the exhibition. It contains a wealth of stories about the Black Madonnas of the whole world. I was not aware of the sheer number of statues and shrines of her in Switzerland alone. At the beginning of the twentieth century in the Italian canton of Tessin, where her cult is very strong, a local pastor felt uncomfortable with what he perceived as a pagan cult of the statue of La Madonna Nera. He replaced it with a white Madonna, which sparked outrage with the locals. Eventually, the church had no choice but to give in, the Black Madonna was restored, while the white one ended up in pastor’s attic. This particular Black Madonna is a copy of the magnificent Black Madonna of Loreto in Italy. Schmid beautifully describes the symbolism of the appearance of the original Italian statue. Especially striking are the five black moon sickles adorning her gown complete with a reversed red triangle – a symbol of feminine fertility (the chalice and the womb). During the French Revolutionary Wars, Napoleon moved the Black Madonna statue from Loreto to Paris, where she was displayed in Louvre as an Egyptian goddess. He must have understood subconsciously that the Black Madonna indeed comes from a long lineage of ancient dark mother goddesses, especially but not only Isis. The Loreto Chapel of Madonna showcases statues of nine Sibyls, further strengthening the connection with the ancient cult of the goddess as well as pointing at the gift of prophecy, seeing in the dark, common to all dark female deities. Mary, not only in her role as the Black Madonna, has always fulfilled a symbolic role of a pontifex – a bridge builder between humans and divinity.

La Madonna Nera of Sonogno, Switzerlad

The Black Madonna of Loreto

A particularly moving legend is connected with the Polish Black Madonna of Czestochowa, who bears two long scars on her face. In the 15th century, the monastery was raided by the Hussites, who stole the icon. However, their horses refused to move the wagon in which they were travelling. In frustration, one of the robbers inflicted two strikes on Madonna’s face with his sword. When he tried to draw his sword upon the image for the third time, he fell to the ground and died a painful death. It is perhaps her fragility and a memento of suffering visible on her face that makes her divine form so human.

The Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Poland

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“The Message of Mr Cogito” by Zbigniew Herbert

The Fountain Tarot

“Go where those others went to the dark boundary
for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize

go upright among those who are on their knees
among those with their backs turned and those toppled in the dust

you were saved not in order to live
you have little time you must give testimony

be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous
in the final account only this is important

and let your helpless Anger be like the sea
whenever you hear the voice of the insulted and beaten

let your sister Scorn not leave you
for the informers executioners cowards – they will win
they will go to your funeral with relief will throw a lump of earth
the woodborer will write your smoothed-over biography

and do not forgive truly it is not in your power
to forgive in the name of those betrayed at dawn

beware however of unnecessary pride
keep looking at your clown’s face in the mirror
repeat: I was called – weren’t there better ones than I

beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring
the bird with an unknown name the winter oak
light on a wall the splendour of the sky
they don’t need your warm breath
they are there to say: no one will console you

be vigilant – when the light on the mountains gives the sign- arise and go
as long as blood turns in the breast your dark star

repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends
because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain
repeat great words repeat them stubbornly
like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand

and they will reward you with what they have at hand
with the whip of laughter with murder on a garbage heap

go because only in this way you will be admitted to the company of cold skulls
to the company of your ancestors: Gilgamesh Hector Roland
the defenders of the kingdom without limit and the city of ashes

Be faithful Go”

translated by Czeslaw Milosz


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Winter Solstice

“We begin at the southern gate, crowned with the majesty of Christmas. There the Sun enters upon its northward journey — a journey which has been described by seers and poets in beautiful symbolism, for it brings to men, and to all that lives, the great hope of rebirth and self-renewal…. The sun lies low in the southern skies; but the miracle of winter light as it caresses the hills white with silence and with peace is hardly to be described. Only those who have lived where pale skies pour molten white gold over horizons glistening white under the robe of the snow can know the magic of a light reflected by an earth so pure that it actually seems the source of light drenching a darker sky.”

Dane Rudhyar, “New Mansions for New Men”

Stanislaw Wyspianski, “View of Kosciuszko Mount from a Window in the Artist’s Studio”

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Fernando Pessoa – Weaver of the Soul

Mural of Fernando Pessoa in Portugal

“Weavers of despair, let us weave only shrouds – white shrouds for the dreams we never dreamed, black shrouds for the days when we die, grey shrouds for the gestures we only dreamed of, imperial purple shrouds for our futile feelings.”

Fernando Pessoa, “The Book of Disquietude”, the complete edition translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, Kindle edition

Fernando Pessoa, was a magnificent Portuguese writer, who spent all of his life in relative obscurity leading quite a lonely life. As was the case with other famous artists, for example Kafka or Van Gogh, the public discovered Pessoa posthumously. While alive he published a single book of poetry and was working on a book of prose, which was never finished or published.  The Book of Disquietude has been described as a fictional diary or a modern confession. “The book is a single state of soul,” he writes, “analyzed from every angle, traversed in every possible direction.” He wrote an autobiography without events; or rather a diary in which the only events are the inner workings of his being. He saw confessing, confiding, baring a soul as the basest human need. Yet, being misunderstood is just as basic, since “the words of others are errors in our hearing, shipwrecks in our understanding.” It seems that all his life he sought self-understanding mainly through writing but also pursuing other surprising avenues, for example by corresponding with Aleister Crowley or by pursuing avidly the subject of astrology. There are gems hidden on almost every page of The Book of Disquietude, which I am currently rereading.

I leave you with Pessoa’s poem “Advice,” which is reminiscent of Theresa Avila’s comparison of soul’s work to watering a garden:

“Surround who you dream you are with high walls.

Then, wherever the garden can be seen

Through the iron bars of the gate,

Plant only the most cheerful flowers,

So that you’ll be known as a cheerful sort.

Where it can’t be seen, don’t plant anything.


Lay flower beds, like other people have,

So that passing gazes can look in

At your garden as you’re going to show it.

But where you’re all your own and no one

Ever sees you, let wild flowers spring up

Spontaneously, and let the grass grow naturally.


Make yourself into a well-guarded Double self,

letting no one who looks in

See more than a garden of who you are—

A showy but private garden, behind which

The native flowers brush against grass

So straggly that not even you see it . . .”

Translated by Richard Zenith, taken from “A Little Larger than the Entire Universe” – Selected Poems by Fernando Pessoa, Kindle edition

Although as a poet he frequently used other names than his own (he called those alternative personalities heteronyms), this particular poem was signed with his name. In his affinity for adopting different artistic identities, however, the inner sanctum of his private soul garden remained untouched by this masquerade.

Arnold Böcklin, “Pan in the Reeds”



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