In Praise of Pilgrimage

Ever since the DF knocked on my door, I’ve been dreaming of a pilgrimage to find Her.

Many times, I’ve imagined what it might feel like to stand in the presence of the 35,000 year old Woman of Willendorf, or roam the land in the Dordogne region of France, where the 25,000 year old carving of the Venus of Laussel was discovered.

 Woman of Willendorf, estimated to be 35,000 years old.

Woman of Willendorf, estimated to be 35,000 years old.

Both of these, along with hundreds of other Paleolithic-era figurines, were discovered in areas spanning from Southwestern France all the way to Siberia. Virtually every figurine that’s been found from this time period is female, and many archeologists believe them to be some of the earliest indications of the spiritual practices of our ancestors. In other words, we were quite likely a Goddess worshipping culture long before our male Gods came roaring onto the scene.

I imagine what the air would smell like in these places. And I wonder about the intentions of our ancestors who created these artifacts, and if those dreams and ideas are somehow captured and held within these pieces of stone or the land itself.  

I’ve never made a pilgrimage. I never felt called to do so before this. It feels important, and it feels transformative. But lately I’ve been wondering if there’s another pilgrimage I’m supposed to undertake first.

 In her book Awakening Shakti: The Transformative Power of The Goddesses of Yoga, Sally Kempton shares the story of the Goddess Sati (She-Who-Is) - the incarnation of the Great Goddess who came to the world to become the consort of Shiva. In the version that Kempton recounts, the Great Goddess agrees to this request from the Gods on one condition: her soon-to-be-father, Dakshu, must always honor Her divinity. If not, She would instantly leave Her body, because She would know that the world was not yet ready for Her presence.

The marriage takes place and all goes well for eons, until Sati finds out Her father, Dakshu, has planned a fire ritual and invited every god, goddess and celestial being except for Shiva and herself. Apparently he’s never been much of a fan of Shiva, who spends his days meditating in the mountains and generally avoiding his divine duties.

When Sati discovers that She and Shiva have been snubbed, She is stunned and saddened. She’s already seen that men and the gods have begun to treat women as property, and she knows Dakshu has forgotten the promise he made to her. So “she sits in meditation, summons her inner yogic fire, and sends her life-force into the ether, leaving her body behind,” writes Kempton.

 Goddess Sati, She-Who-Is, summons Her inner yogic fire

Goddess Sati, She-Who-Is, summons Her inner yogic fire

When Shiva finds out, he is devastated and furious. He scoops up Her body and carries it throughout the world, leaving natural disasters and destruction in his wake. Finally the gods, in a bid to save the universe, send Saturn to retrieve Sati’s body and cut it into pieces. As the pieces fall to Earth, they become sacred sites around the world, hidden in humble spots in nature.

 Shiva carrying Sati's lifeless body

Shiva carrying Sati's lifeless body

The story of Sati (whose name also refers to the now obsolete Hindu practice of a wife throwing herself on the funeral pyre of her husband in the ultimate act of sacrifice) is a myth. In some ways, it is also feels like the story of modern women.

We, like Sati, have been carved into pieces – except instead of the gods taking on the job, we’ve done it to ourselves. We’re pretty damn good at slicing ourselves up and discarding the pieces that don’t meet the standards imposed on us by a culture that does not value women as our whole, complete and messy selves.

What are the pieces of ourselves that we’ve left scattered along the highway of our lives? There are so many pieces of me that I’ve tried to throw away that I’ve almost lost count.

The part whose temper was legendary in my family, even at a young age. The part that once wore tiny skirts, sported an always-exposed stomach and loved attracting the attention of men. The part that is frankly exhausted by the needs of my children on an almost daily basis. The part that is dying to let my freak flag fly as high and as freely as it will possibly go.

 This pretty much sums up college - bare midriff, soaking up whatever attention I could get and almost setting someone on fire with my cigarette.

This pretty much sums up college - bare midriff, soaking up whatever attention I could get and almost setting someone on fire with my cigarette.

At one point or another I’ve discarded them all, trying to forget about their very existence, convinced that I cannot be good, or smart or a responsible mother if I hold on to them.  

Who sets these rules? And who gets to decide which parts of me are sacred and which ones are not?

In The Myth of the Goddess, Anne Baring and Jules Cashford note that our Paleolithic ancestors were deeply connected to the cycles of the moon. They suggest that the fourth phase, that of the new moon and darkness, is in fact where all life is gestated, and where the new moon is “reborn” again each month. This darkness – that of the Sacred Mother who gives birth to all – transcends duality. In it is contained everything. The light and the dark, the beautiful and the ugly, the living and the dead.

 Of all of her phases, the dark moon is the most potent.

Of all of her phases, the dark moon is the most potent.

For our Paleolithic ancestors, “everything that existed, including themselves, was an expression of the Mother Goddess,” write Baring and Cashford. And all of it was sacred. Every single part. 

Maybe our journey back to the DF, then, begins right here, looking no further than ourselves. In order to breathe Her back into our world, we must experience a full awakening of ourselves as sacred – every last part. Like those sacred sites created by the pieces of Sati’s body, we also must treat the individual parts of ourselves as sacred, especially those that we’ve denied the most. We must make pilgrimages to each, dusting them off, understanding the memories that accompany them and why we discarded them in the first place.

This is not easy work. It will not be simple, and it will not be swift.  But if we’re willing to undertake the task, over time our lives can become pilgrimages of their own.

Maybe over time, we can approach these parts of ourselves, not with shame or rejection, but with reverence and wonder and gratitude. And each time we reclaim a piece of ourselves, each time we love it not despite its flaws but precisely because of its imperfections, its aching humanity, we breathe more life into a great awakening of ourselves and the DF – for the benefit of us all.