Saturday, May 14, 2011


At important forks in the road in ancient Greece, one would come across a statue of a woman. She had three faces: one facing the direction you had come in from, and the two others facing two paths ahead you might choose.

This was, is, Hecate, the goddess of the crossroads, the goddess of twilight, the crone; the bringer of knowing through dreams. As a ‘dark’ goddess, Hecate is always clothed in black, usually depicted in Greek vase painting as a woman holding up two flaming torches. 

In ancient times, crossroads were believed to be special ‘thin’ places, where the veil between the worlds was easily bridged; places where we could communicate with the goddess and learn from her.

I chose to write this piece on Hecate after a dream: 
Late one evening, passing by a T-junction road near my home  - which does in fact exist, and which on waking does appear like a fork in the road - a car crunches over what seems to be a small ceramic bowl. I turn around, and obey a strong impulse to pick it up, surprised it isn’t too damaged. Planning to stick back two small broken off pieces, I pick up the bowl and the fragments and I place them in my bag. When I get back home, I am stunned to see the bowl is whole again, and is actually, when I turn it over, a woman with three faces. In my dream, I place the magically repaired little statue on my ‘sacred ledge’ above my desk, among other meaningful objects.

Here, at a time of my life when many things have recently changed, and I was at a crossroads moment in my mid 50s, fumblingly learning also to accept the new responsibilities, powers, freedoms and gifts of crone-hood, Hecate appeared - to teach, support and guide.

Hecate is actually an ancient Titan goddess from an earlier, pre-Greek period of myth. It is believed she was so powerful and respected by her followers that she continued being represented as having great powers even after the Titan gods were replaced by Olympian ones. Even Zeus, as the main god of Olympus, was shown as retaining for Hecate the ancient power of giving or denying to mortals any desired gift, he alone among the other gods having this same power. She had dominion over sky, earth and the underworld, and initially at least, over all three phases of the moon.

While the other primary gods and goddesses chose to live on Mount Olympus, Hecate preferred to live in the Underworld. An older woman, accompanied by her hound, sometimes depicted as three-headed too, appearing at dark times in dark places; thought to be invisible, or appearing as just ‘luminous light’, Hecate’s aspect can be disconcerting, even scary.

But it helps to remember that in the world of myth, there is no such thing as a good goddess and a less good, or bad one. Each is an aspect of reality, and to balance out portrayals of a benevolent, maternal deities, fostering life, we have a strong, often fierce manifestations, standing for death, rupture, separation, endings.

Hecate is referred to as one of the virgin goddesses, and it is important to know that to the Ancient Greeks the word virgin did not always mean a girl uninitiated into sexual intercourse; it denoted a self-possessed woman, not beholden to any man.

I knew that one aspect of the Triple Goddess in later Greek myth was that of Persephone as maiden; Demeter, mother; and Hecate, crone. For such a powerful goddess, Hecate, unlike most female figures, even minor ones, of Greek mythology, does not seem to have any stand-alone stories of her own, her most significant appearance being as a character in the Demeter story. 

In the mother-daughter myth, Hekate, we learn, had heard though not seen Persephone being abducted, and in studying the myth, we see she did not rush to help [I will later post another piece on the Demeter/Persephone myth as I understand it], wisely knowing it was in the ‘rightness’ of things that the girl separated from the mother, however painful to them both. Later she assisted Demeter in her search for Persephone, guiding her through the night with her blazing torches. And still later, after the mother-daughter reunion, she became she Persephone's guide and support in the lower dark realms of the underworld.

Hecate is said to appear “when the ebony moon shines.” I learnt that the new moon is also called the dark moon, or ebony moon, as in this phase there is no illumination on the earth's side. For some – when two new moons occur in any single month, the second is called the ebony moon. 

The next New Moon this year: June 1, 2011, 21:03. For India: June 2, 2011, 02:33 

Familiar with the process of death and dying as well as that of new birth and new life, the goddess Hecate was wise in all of earth's mysteries. Ever present to life’s cyclic rhythms, she presides over change and death – rather, over many deaths - as life is filled with many deaths and rebirths, many endings and beginnings.  She is also believed to have a role in helping the elderly make a smooth passage into the next life and staying with them, if need be, in the otherworld to help prepare them for their eventual return to the earth in their next life. 

Her special ability to see into the Underworld, or the Otherworld of the sleeping and the dead, made her comfortable in the company of those most would shun out of fear. In her role as Queen of the Night, sometimes traveling with a following of ghosts and other social outcasts, she was both honored and feared as the protectress of the oppressed and of those who lived ‘on the edge’. This is one reason she and her followers had often been feared and reviled; they stand with at least one foot outside of the conventional world.  

Hecate was often accompanied on her travels by an owl, a symbol of wisdom, though she is not really known as a goddess of wisdom, but is recognized for a special type of knowledge and is considered to be the goddess of trivia, or small details. Yet, other writers feel this is a distortion of the idea that she was worshipped at places where three roads met and was therefore known as Hecate Trevia or  Tri-via; Hecate of the Three ways, connected with the moon's three phases and ruling over the three regions of heaven, earth and the underworld.

Associated with being 'between', with her connection with crossroads, borders, city walls, doorways and thresholds, and by extension, with realms outside or beyond the world of the living - she is characterized as a ‘liminal’ goddess.  She understands the grey areas between black and white, right and wrong, good and bad.

The Dark of the Moon, a time of endings and beginnings, when what was is no more, and what will be has yet to become, that in-between, liminal time, is understandably her time.
Hekate guards the limenoskopos, the doorstep, for she is a goddess of being on, as well as crossing over, boundaries. It means not only the boundary between life and death, but any boundaries, such as those between nature and city, waking and sleep, sanity and madness, self and other, the conscious and the subconscious minds. 
As goddess of the crossroads, Hecate appears at every major fork in the road where transition decisions are made, reminding us of the importance of change, helping us to release the past, especially those things that are hindering our growth. New beginnings, whether spiritual or mundane, aren't always easy, and she sometimes asks us to let go of what is familiar, safe and secure, and to travel to the scary places of the soul that will ultimately make us whole. 

She grants the gift of discernment and farsightedness to see what lies deeply forgotten or even hidden, often shining her torches to guide you through dreams or reverie. 

Hekate is also associated with an interesting wheel-shaped design, known as Hekate's Wheel, the Strophalos of Hekate, a circle around a serpentine maze with three main flanges, that in turn are situated around a central, fiery spiral. The three main arms of the maze correspond with her being a triple goddess, as well as goddess of the three ways. The design also refers to the serpent's power of rebirth, and to the labyrinth of knowledge through which Hekate could lead us, and to the flame of life itself. 

Hecate in this way can be understood too as the archetype for the Healer. Or Therapist. These are her teachings to those of us who claim to practice healing and therapy, as I do -- accepting all; respecting ‘what is’ even as we work with what ‘might be’; shining a light; offering the knowing that there is more than one way to see or to act; being invisible most of the time yet very, very present; encouraging people to see things in a new/different light; helping release the old, familiar ways and find one’s way through new beginnings; supporting a greater understanding of our selves, our dreams, our connections, and of relationships and others. 

Although one of her many appellations is The Distant One, Hecate can be close at hand. Whether we encounter her in waking hours - through people and events that take on her role, or through dreams gifted us while we sleep -she can lead us to see things differently, to be comfortable with dark places, dark emotions.

In this way, we can consider Hekate as the goddess of psychological transformation, her underworld the dark recesses of the human subconscious. By the light of her twin torches Hekate reveals what is already there. These are things a person needs to see in order to heal and renew. 

The crone is the third and final aspect of the three-fold Goddess. She is the dark moon, wintertime, old age and knower of mysteries. 
Being called a ‘crone’ is disturbing for many women! Looking for a defintion of the word, you’d most likely come across something like this: “The crone is a stock character in myths and fairytales, an old woman who is usually disagreeable, malicious, or sinister in manner, often with magical or supernatural associations that can make her either helpful or obstructing. She is marginalized by her exclusion from the reproductive cycle, and her proximity to death places her in contact with occult wisdom. As a character type, the crone shares characteristics with the hag.”

Oh my! Decidedly not nice!

Acceptance of our aging is tough enough without society seeming to conspire to hold up all the negatives of this stage. And we could get swept along with the incomplete meanings. It follows then, that this aspect of the Triple Goddess is the most frightening and misunderstood of the three, as she calls up ideas of our aging, change, destruction, decay and death. 

Traditional societies however, view death as part of a natural cycle, essential for change, for continuity. 

In her positive aspect the crone is seen as Grandmother, a wise woman, or a midwife, helping birth new selves; as wisdom keeper, seer and healer, whose knowledge is sought out to guide others during life's hardships and transitions. 

And our challenge is to own this side of her, this side of us.

The crone is a teacher or wise one, sometimes called the 'way-shower' as she shines the light of wisdom for all to see. She teaches that we cannot make things happen to suit our timing; things will happen when they need to - even as she teaches her followers the paths of freedom and power, she brings the gift and strength of patience.

The crone brings us an understanding also of the power of silence and of solitude. She reminds us that every spiritual journey teaches this as a necessary discipline, and includes periods of renewing silence. And she leads us to understand there is a place we reach in solitude when we no longer feel isolated or lonely, that real power can be attained in solitude because we have found our connection to all beings.

As knower of mysteries, secrets of existence, or hidden things, the crone presides in the dream worlds, guiding us through the unconscious labyrinths of our deep minds. She teaches us the symbolism of our dreams and helps us to understand and shape them to our choosing. The goddess gives us dreams and visions, which if interpreted patiently and wisely, led to greater clarity.

Hecate is particularly a force and teacher for women in their 50s and 60s. We accept and invite in fullness the crone that we have evolved into, reaping the accumulated benefits of all that we have learned so far, through experiences good and bad, happy and sad. And now - powerfully and wisely knowing when to withhold, knowing when to extend – we are encouraged to share our hard won wisdom with others.

Australian Aborigines say that the big stories - 
the stories worth telling and retelling, 
the ones in which you may find the meaning of your life - 
are forever stalking the right teller, 
sniffing and tracking like predators hunting their prey in the bush.
~ Robert Moss, Dreamgates

Friday, January 7, 2011


This is the story of Caedmon, an ordinary man whom God took aside from his busy everyday activity and from his own sense of who and what he was, and spoke to him in the quiet of the night.

His story is recounted in Bede the Venerable’s Historia Ecclesiastica
Gentis Anglorum, or Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written around 731.

Caedmon lived in the seventh century as a lay brother in the community of Abbess Hilda of Whitby.

Bede tells us, ‘He had lived in the secular habit until he was well advanced in years and had never learned any songs.’ The singing of psalms and hymns played its normal central role in a Celtic establishment, and often at a feast for the sake of providing entertainment, it was an accepted tradition that all present should all sing in turn. That he knew no songs and could not sing bothered Caedmon so much, that whenever he saw the harp approaching him, he would quietly rise up even in the middle of the feasting, slip out, and return home.

Once, during the singing, Caedmon was so frustrated by his inability to contribute to the praises of the community he left the gathering, went to the stables and fell asleep among the horses.

As he slept, he dreamt that someone addressed him by name, saying, “Caedmon, sing me something.” Caedmon answered, “I cannot sing; that is why I left the feast and came here, because I could not sing.” The voice replied, “Nevertheless, you must sing.”

Feeling strangely compelled to obey, he asked, “What shall I sing?” and heard the voice say, “Sing about the beginning of created things.”

At that, Caedmon immediately began to sing out in praise of God:

Now we ought to praise Heaven-kingdom’s guardian,
the Maker’s might and his mind’s thoughts,
the work of the glory-father, as he established
the beginning of every wonder.

He first shaped for men’s sons 
Heaven as a roof, the holy Creator;
then middle-earth mankind’s guardian,
eternal Lord, afterwards prepared,
for men the earth, the Lord almighty.

Waking from his sleep, Caedmon remembered all that he had sung in his dream; his hymn was new, pouring forth from his heart. The next morning he went to his superior and told him of the dream. His superior took him to Hilda.

The abbess, who recognized the grace of God at work, instructed Caedmon to set aside his secular habit and to take monastic vows. She and all her people received him into the community of the brothers, and ordered that he should be instructed in the whole course of sacred history. He learned all he could by listening to them, and then, Bede tells us “.. memorizing it and ruminating over it, like some clean animal chewing the cud, he turned it into the most melodious verse: and it sounded so sweet as he recited it that his teachers became in turn his audience.”

He composed more verses in the same manner, “praising God in a worthy style,” and went on to become a great creative and dynamic force in the spiritual community, a poet and a prophet.

Caedmon is the very first English poet whose name we know; and so English poetry, it is said, began with a vision of God.

Caedmon’s story tells us too of our ordinary selves, afraid to find our ‘true voice’; but by heeding the call of ‘the other’ - divine prompting, sometimes simple inner prompting - we can give voice to our previously withheld beautiful creativity – whatever shape or form this takes.

Other poets find commonality with Caedmon’s story.

Susan Mitchell's dwells on Caedmon's story, and the prompting of ‘the other one’ in her beautiful poem ‘Rapture’:

“Sing me something'' is what the other keeps saying
night after night, regular as a pulse.

And when this one is alone, there's no problem.
He sings. He takes the lute-like
into his hands and plucks. Yes, he hears it.
What sounds like a sound. But when he opens his mouth,
it's different, it's the wrong sound.

And when this one is alone, there's no problem.
He sings. He takes the lute-like
into his hands and plucks. Yes, he hears it.
What sounds like a sound. But when he opens his mouth,
it's different, it's the wrong sound.

Is it the acoustics inside
his head that make the difference? And who keeps
urging, making impossible demands
of him? ``Come on,''

the other one is saying like
a faucet dripping, like a branch beating the window.
The window in his head. He opens it.

“Come on, Caedmon, sing me hwaethwugu.'' Yes,
that's how it sounds, like another
language, like gibberish, like
talking in his sleep. Remember the eensy-weensy

spider that climbed the water spout? That's how
he tries. His hands try. His lips.
It falls down. He tries. It falls down.
It's that regular. But when he makes it that regular
it's no good. It's not the same regularity.

I can't, he says, filling his mouth
with a big hole. Refusing, it begins for him.
Protesting, it swings itself up, it gets
going. It comes to him coming.

Or, it comes to her. What she lacks.
What hasn't happened in her
entire life, now it's coming, its absence
spread everywhere like a canyon in waves
of magenta and purple and gold.

The voice spreading before her. ``Forget
outside. Forget sky outside and clouds outside.''
This is what the voice spreads
before her, so she can look at what
it is saying. …

And one of my favorite poets, Denise Levertov has these words (from her ‘Breathing the Water’) on Caedmon discovering his:

All others talked as if
talk were a dance.
Clodhopper I, with clumsy feet
would break the gliding ring.
Early I learned to
hunch myself
close by the door:
then when the talk began
I’d wipe my
mouth and wend
unnoticed back to the barn
to be with the warm beasts,
dumb among body sounds
of the simple ones.
I’d see by a twist
of lit rush the motes
of gold moving
from shadow to shadow
slow in the wake
of deep untroubled sighs.
The cows
munched or stirred or were still. I
was at home and lonely,
both in good measure. Until
the sudden angel affrighted me—light effacing
my feeble beam,
a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying:  
but the cows as before
were calm, and nothing was burning,
             nothing but I, as that hand of fire  
touched my lips and scorched my tongue  
and pulled my voice
                            into the ring of the dance.

May each of us discover the courage to find our true voice.

Marguerite Theophil

Stories live in your blood and bones,follow the seasons 
and light candles on the darkest night
-every storyteller knows she or he is also a teacher... 
~Patti Davis

Saturday, January 1, 2011


A gift of a bracelet from Ghana at first looks like a series of linked hearts, but on closer inspection I notice a stylized bird.

I learn that this is the Sankofa, a mythic bird from their culture that flies forward while looking backward, with an egg held in its mouth.

The word Sankofa derives from the Akan peoples, a West African ethnic group that today resides in Ghana and the Ivory Coast. The Akan, over centuries, developed a highly artistic and communicative system of ideographic and pictographic symbols, each representing a specific concept, proverb or saying rooted in the Akan experience. These symbols can be found used extensively in indigenous textiles, metal and wood work, jewellery, and architecture too.

The older African religions had no sacred texts. Their beliefs were handed down mostly orally through proverbs and stories or through pictorial symbols that convey the deeper meanings of life and culture to a community or nation.

A proverb from which the concept and meaning of Sankofa is derived declares, "It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten." It speaks of taking from the past what is good and bringing it into the present in order to make positive progress through the benevolent use of knowledge.

The Sankofa bird is stylized in a circular fashion to represent that there is no end and no beginning. It has an egg in its mouth, which represents not only the knowledge of the past upon which wisdom is based, but also signifies the generation to come that would benefit from that wisdom.

Culturally, the Sankofa bird represents the collective wisdom of a people, and teaches that a people must know its past legacy to understand their present situation in order to protect and create a future for generations to come. It is a message to take from the past what is good and bring it into the present in order to move forward with a strong foundation. It can also remind us that we are all here because of the sacrifices of those who have gone before.

Another translation of this concept is "You can't know where you're going unless you know where you come from," and this can hold for individuals as much as it can hold for cultures.

I see this in practice when as individuals we look at the things that happened in our past, take what we have learned from those experiences, and use it to move forward, and when this helps us also to avoid creating the same unhelpful patterns again and again.

Sankofa represents the concepts of claiming identity, redefinition, revisioning and acting – which are key aspects of personal growth work. It reminds one to focus on moving forward, while gaining wisdom from the past and achieving proper balance in preparation for the future.

Many of us bury in the past not only problems, but also often the best and most valuable parts of ourselves. Sankofa is a wonderful teaching here, reminding us that in such cases, "returning and fetching that which is lost" is not at all wrong, and often necessary. Whatever we have lost, forgotten, given up or been stripped of, can be reclaimed and revived. We are encouraged to reach back and gather the best of what our past has to teach us, reclaim the lost or marginalized aspects of our higher selves, so that we can achieve our full potential as we move forward.

May we, as 2011 begins, look back, look forward and wisely move on ...
Marguerite Theophil

"Any event retold from life that would appear to carry a meaning, however small, is a story" 
 ~ Ben Okri

Thursday, July 8, 2010


Exploring the stories of ‘women and descent’ I find myself also revisiting Alice, making the time to time to read Alice In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass again recently.

I had read these books in several edited childish versions between the ages of five and ten, only getting to the real Lewis Carroll versions after sixteen. I think I was interested in different aspects of the stories in the second round of reading, such as the clever use of language and the subtler messages coming through about people and places; the influences of both magic and believability has shifted in the adolescent angst I was then experiencing.

The third recent reading brought back memories of my responses from both, my childhood and teenage years. And oddly I see that my connection – earlier in the form of likes and dislikes, later in the form of questions and judgments (Why did she say that? What did he mean?; or, That was so dumb! She could have said/done this instead), remained pretty much the same.

A lot of people have not read the books, only seen the Disney movie. Lewis Carol wrote the book in 1865 and 1872, and Disney produced its own animated version of Alice in Wonderland I think maybe in the 60s. The Disney production aimed at a very young audience, shows Wonderland as a colorful place, full of flowers, trees and an impressive garden, but did not show other layered aspects of the story, aspects that give the books a complexity richness. Perhaps it’s because it was meant for a younger audience; but Disney sanitized and prettified this one and many others it made movies of, rather more than any of the stories deserve.

Much of what I recall from my readings first had to do with identity, then with finding answers or meanings.

I know there have been many interpretations about not just the books but of the author’s life and philosophy and tendencies, but from a personal perspective, identity and the confusions about the process of finding out about yourself stands out.

There were a whole lot of really delicious lines to rediscover in this connection:

Very early on when she had shrunk after drinking the contents of the bottle, we read : for this very curious child was very fond of pretending to be two people. “But it’s no use now,” thought poor Alice, “to pretend to be two people! Why, there’s hardly enough of me left to make one …”

‘Who are YOU?' said the Caterpillar. … Alice replied, rather shyly, `I--I hardly know, sir, just at present-- at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.'

‘I quite agree with you,' said the Duchess; `and the moral of that is--Be what you would seem to be - or if you'd like it put more simply - never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.'

Alice In Wonderland is not really a fairytale. There are no castles, or fairies or giants, though there are far more strange characters. Rather than about once upon a time, far far away , it is about now, in Alice’s garden. We know where we are – or so we think; yet that familiar place opens into the strange.

I think most people have at some point read these books, so I make a quick recap of some features and a few main (for me) characters.

Alice is based on Lewis Carroll's real-life friend, the young Alice Liddell. Alice, in the novel, is a girl growing up, displaying the mix of sureness and unsureness that marks this in-between stage on the way to adulthood. Throughout, Alice is "trying on" her adult self. She speaks in a learned manner, even when she isn't quite sure what she is speaking about, and she often creates in her own mind an adult personality to check her childish impulses. This comes through in her ‘falling’ to a place like none she has ever known. Descent, in fact, for Alice comes through her curiosity. She follows the White Rabbit down his rabbit hole, but loses him almost immediately.

The White Rabbit is the character that reappears to get things moving again when things need to take a new turn. He is a sort of guide, or more a device for indicating the changes Alice comes to, as he is too preoccupied with his own stuff to really be directly guiding her.

The Cheshire Cat, a smiling cat who can disappears and reappears at will, reveals to Alice how, after you have mastered the rules, then rules can start to master you. He propels her to the Mad Hatter and then to the Queen showing what happens when the rules get out of hand: illogical madness, a sort of childhood for adults.

The crazy tyrant who rules Wonderland, The Queen of Hearts, is best seen as an older person, an adult, who uses her rank and position arbitrarily, and has become full of impulsive and contradictory commands and unintelligible responses. In a sense, she is really an overgrown child who just happens to be old. The story highlights this by the changes in both Alice and the Queen -- as Alice grows stronger and more reasonable, the Queen degenerates into frailty and madness.

… And of course there’s The Mad Hatter, The Caterpillar, The March Hare, The Doormouse and other characters whom we meet later in many other allusions and books by other writers and references in all kinds of writings of all kinds of people.
Change is all around; change from form to form, from moment to moment. Alice changes shape and sizes, but there are also all these talking creatures, like the caterpillar smoking on his mushroom, Humpty Dumpty, and the Walrus and the Carpenter, halfway between creatures and people, yet quite believable.

Carroll sees to it that Alice starts out a child, but comes out of Wonderland now prepared to be an adult. She has learned that to be an adult is to honor rules, but not blindly. That there must be rules for a game to mean something, but the rules must be interpreted with a sense of justice and mercy, or they are as meaningless as no rules at all.

Most importantly, Alice has learned that to be old, or big, is not necessarily to be an adult.

In his other book, Through the Looking-Glass, Carroll gives us an Alice who imagines going into the Looking-glass House behind the mirror - an engaging tale of a child's journey into a world unlike any other.

It is my lesser liked book of the two; I found it more ‘childish’ before, and now I see why – unlike in the first book where you accept all the strange happenings naturally, here I feel you are more led or encouraged to do it, and it gets irritating at times.
It is told that the writer asked the ‘real’ Alice to his home where she saw a tall mirror standing in one corner. He put an orange in her right hand, asked her to look into the mirror, and then asked her which hand held the orange. She replied "The left hand." Baffled she said "If I was on the other side of the glass, wouldn't the orange still be in my right hand?" Carroll laughed, saying “That's the best answer I've had yet."

So the ‘reversals’ of a mirror give space for all kinds of other reversals. Carroll's imagination takes readers with Alice into Looking-glass House, with situations from the ordinary to the extraordinary, the staid to the silly, using the game of chess as the setting. Carroll juggles a heady mix of fantasy and reality to create a believable looking-glass world. He does it with such craft and skill that none of it seems incongruous.

In this mirror-image chess world, we encounter nonsense verse, nonsense words and writings, and meet other memorables - Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Humpty Dumpty, (of the famous: "When I use a word it means just what I choose it to means; neither more nor less.") and the White Knight and Red Knight.

In both books, Carroll juggles with linguistic conventions, making use of puns and playing on multiple meanings of words , even inventing words and expressions and developing new meanings for words. Anything is possible in Wonderland, and Carroll’s manipulation of language reflects this sense of unlimited possibility. In the second book his playing with language gets more intense. In Looking Glass, he uses his expertise in nonsense verse, rhymes, humor, and puns to create songs, jokes, and stories throughout.

I remember that the silly words games, the quite terrible schoolgirl level jokes were aspects of the book I enjoyed. Which young girl who had a love for words wouldn’t laugh like crazy at the silliness of the talking flowers?

Alice goes: “Aren’t you sometimes frightened at being planted out here, with nobody to take care of you?”
"There's the tree in the middle," said the Rose. "What else is it good for?"
"But what could it do, if any danger came?" Alice asked.
"It could bark," said the Rose.
"It says 'Bough-wough!'" cried a Daisy. "That’s why its branches are called boughs."

Carroll explores the conflicts and tensions inherent in a child's world. Humpty Dumpty's severe tone, as well as the Queens' judging attitudes, reflect common ‘adult’ responses, requiring Alice to stand up for herself and believe in herself. The White Knight aids Alice in feeling protected and confident. Tweedledum and Tweedledee's kindness and compassion support her and teach her the same. As Alice deals with loneliness, awkwardness, and other interpersonal conflicts, she evolves and matures.

Alice moves along a make-believe, magical chess board. Successfully completing of her journey, she celebrates with the Red and White Queen as she becomes “Queen Alice”.

Overall, if the books teach a meaningful lesson, I think it is this: that meanings can change in changed contexts, certainty will be challenged, that we must expect the unexpected – not just in bookland but in everyday life.

The certainty and security a young person longs for even as she or he longs for change are brought out here perhaps better than any other story. In Wonderland, Alice finds that her lessons no longer mean what she thought, as she botches her multiplication tables and incorrectly recites poems she had memorized while in Wonderland. Even Alice’s physical dimensions become warped as she grows and shrinks erratically throughout the story. Wonderland frustrates Alice’s desires to fit her experiences in a logical framework where she can make sense of the relationship between cause and effect.

In both books, Alice encounters a series of puzzles that seem to have no clear solutions, which imitates the ways that life frustrates expectations. Alice expects that the situations she encounters will make a certain kind of sense, but they repeatedly frustrate her ability to figure out Wonderland. Alice tries to understand the Caucus race, solve the Mad Hatter’s riddle, and understand the Queen’s ridiculous croquet game, but to no avail. In every instance, the riddles and challenges presented to Alice seem to have no purpose or answer.

Even though Lewis Carroll was a logician and mathematician, he deftly plays around with riddles and games of logic that have no logic! Alice learns that she cannot expect to find logic or meaning in the situations that she encounters, even when they appear to be problems, riddles, or games that would normally have solutions that Alice would be able to figure out. Carroll makes a broader point about the ways that life frustrates expectations and resists interpretation, even when problems seem familiar or solvable.

Alice’s Wonderland and Looking-Glass world are really what she – and we – will encounter, not in falling through a long tunnel, but stumbling along our everyday lives wherever we are.

May you learn to be comfortable with uncertainty and learn to expect the unexpected! Marguerite Theophil

“Of course it’s true,
but it may not have happened.”

(~ a wise grandmother storyteller)


Studying the myths of various cultures leads to a better understanding of their social and religious underpinnings. By turning the myths inwards, inviting them into our lives and learning their language of imagery and symbolism, we learn more about ourselves.

In almost every culture, the metaphor of descent serves as a powerful, sacred and mythic image for women.

One of the earliest such accounts is the story of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess and Queen of the Upper World. She was worshipped in Sumer from the third millennium BCE (before the common era) to the first millennium BCE. The myth chronicles her descent to the Underworld, the abode of the dead. On her journey she passes through the seven gates which lead to the inner throne chamber. At each of the seven gates she is required to shed a part of her costume. The items she discards are symbolic representations of her powers in the Upper World. By the time she gets to the innermost gate, she is completely naked; shorn of all the familiar trappings of identity and power.

This myth operates at many levels. Inanna symbolises fertility. Her descent and return are the natural cycles of destruction and regeneration. At the psycho-spiritual level, the story represents the move away from comfortable everyday reality, the ‘stripping’ away of familiar forms of identification, a recognition of the denied shadow side — in an effort to find our real selves.

The rules of the ‘above’ do not hold good for the psychological territory ‘below’. Inanna’s descent brings her into conflict with her ‘dark’ sister, Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld. Inanna realises that this power, too, has its own place. In fact, Ereshkigal is another face of Inanna, who has to be acknowledged, accepted and integrated. Inanna, therefore, expresses a complete and encompassing identity, an amalgam of the human traits. She finds completeness in an understanding of both these worlds. She has to enter the unknown darkness without her previous “I am” definitions. In that darkness she dies and is reborn.

Another feminine descent journey that we are perhaps more familiar with is that of Persephone, who was snatched and borne off to the Underworld by Hades, Lord of that domain. Demeter, her mother, undertakes a long and arduous journey to rescue her daughter. Jungian writer Helen Luke analyses the story through the idiom of separation and reintegration. She points out that the descent, and in particular Persephone’s swallowing of the pomegranate seeds which ensures her return to Hades for a part of each year, marks a turning point. She will not regress to dependent daughterhood. She is different, more ‘herself’ for having made the descent and experiencing what she did.

In the story of Savitri, when Satyavan is carried off to the Underworld by Yama, his wife Savitri pursues him unrelentingly. Nothing Yama says or does dissuades her. Desperate to make her go back, Yama grants her a boon, that she may have children. She then demands that Satyavan be resurrected so that he can father those promised offspring. In this manner she recovers that ‘lost’ part of herself.

Another Jungian teacher and writer, Marie Louise von Franz, in her studies on fairy tales, shows how frequently the journey of the goddess involves descent, a long sleep, or withdrawal from the world. This is the metaphor of introspection; sometimes still and calm, at other times turbulent. It always involves an unfamiliar place or way of being. In this place, new meanings shape new behaviour.

Descent implies the courage to access ‘another world’, whether by choice or through being flung in protesting! In every case, the ‘return’ has us wiser. The knowledge gained on this journey through mythic imagery, when carried into everyday world, equips us to deal with existing issues and conflicts with wisdom, clarity and understanding.

May you recognize and use ‘up here’ the gifts from the journey you end up making ‘below’. Marguerite Theophil

The purpose of a life is to make an unconscious mythology
a conscious autobiography.
~ Sam Keen

Thursday, January 28, 2010


Living in the now is a lesson from many spiritual traditions. It is simple but not easy!

For many of us, wanting things to be to be not-as-they-are-now – either through a going back to how they have earlier been, the ‘good old days’ syndrome, or wanting things to conform to a wished for future occupies a lot of our living.

The Story World has many stories that poke fun at the futility of this, gently nudging us through the laughter to learning to accept, live in, even enjoy our ‘now’.

Many stories in the “Three Wishes” category from all over the world offer this insight.

A teaching story from India, A Couple of Misers, in the collection by A. K. Ramanujan, in “The Flowering Tree and Other Oral Tales from India”, while at one level teaching about sharing and generosity, also teaches about enjoying what we have in the present moment.

A miserly man married a miserly woman and they had a little son. They were such misers that they wouldn’t eat a betel nut; they would carefully suck on one and wipe it and put it away. They ate meals only because they needed to eat to keep alive. Still they complained and asked God why he had to make a stomach that they had to fill every day so many times.

They had a secret grain pit in the gods’ room, and their life’s ambition was to fill it with money by the time their little son grew up. The wife complained about the size of the cucumbers in their backyard: if only they could have been twice the size, the family could have dined on them for two more days. When her husband asked her to wear the one or two pieces of jewelry she had received at her wedding, she would say, “Are you crazy? If I wear them, I’ll wear them out. Who’s the loser then? You and me!” The husband would beam at his wife’s wisdom.

For years, no guest had ever entered their house for a drink of water or a morsel of food. One rainy season, the couple had shut all the doors when suddenly they heard someone banging on their door. The husband opened it and in came a holy man, grumbling, “What a terrible rain, what a terrible rain!” As soon as he came in, he shut the door behind him and praised them.
“You are such good people. I’d have caught cold in that rain and died. You took me in and saved my life.”

As he had come in like a wet dog, he wet the whole house with his drippings. The wife said, “That’s all very well. You’ve dripped water all over the house.”

The husband chimed in, “What shall we do if the house gets too damp and the walls crumble?”

The holy man was not worried. He said, “No such thing will happen. After all, a holy man like me is in this house. Why don’t you bring some cow dung and wipe the floor with all this water and make it clean and nice?”

The husband couldn’t bear this man’s intrusion. “We don’t yet know why Your Holiness is here,” he said, quite bluntly.

The man said, “What does a holy man do in his devotees’ house? It’s very hard these days to find real devotees like yourselves. You’re two in a thousand. Because of the likes of you, holy men survive in this world. Well, anyway it’s time for dinner. You could give me some dinner. Then you can spread a mat. I’ll lie on it and be gone in the morning. Anyway, good generous people like you are very rare. I’d rather get a glimpse of your sweet faces than go on a pilgrimage to Kashi.”

He didn’t seem to wait for any yes or no from them. The couple stood there with their mouths open. He didn’t notice them at all. He took off most of his wet clothes, wrung them out then and there, and hung them up to dry on the peg. He even took the dry shirt and dhoti of the host from the clothesline, put them on, and sat on a chair without a word of apology. He asked the bewildered host to sit down on the other chair, and asked the woman, “Will you finish cooking soon?” The husband sat down where he stood, his mouth still open. His wife went in to cook.

She had some leftover rice from the afternoon. She felt that wouldn’t be enough and made some more. She meant to serve the leftovers to the guest and the fresh hot rice to her husband. But she was too flustered to do so, and actually served her husband the leftovers and the guest the fresh rice. The holy man relished everything he ate and asked for more chutney and more ghee and more everything. She couldn’t help serving him whatever he asked for, to the great astonishment of her husband, who knew her very well. The guest talked ceaselessly through the meal and even afterwards as he relaxed in his chair and praised her cooking fulsomely.

“What a wonderful cook you are! It was like ambrosia. The spices, the proportions! Others may bring the whole spice bazaar to the kitchen but can’t cook one good curry.”

The wife ate the small scraps of food left over from this hearty meal, and came out of the kitchen, somewhat exhausted. The holy man addressed them both with great satisfaction.

“Look, as I said, we don’t get devotees like you every day. I’m very pleased with your hospitality. I’ll give you three wishes. Ask what you want.”

Now the faces of the miser and his wife blossomed. The man came and fell at the guest’s feet and said, “Sir, please, may whatever I touch turn into a heap of silver rupees.”

The holy man asked him first to let go of his legs, and when he had done so, said, “Done.”

The husband put his hands out and touched a couple of things around him, and they fell down in a clanging heap of rupees. His joy knew no bounds. He jumped up and down, touching everything he could see, turning things into heaps of rupees.
The wife now fell at the holy man’s feet, and thinking of the cucumbers in her backyard, said, “Swami, may whatever I touch grow one yard long.”

The holy man quickly said, “Let go of the legs first,” released himself, then said, “So be it.”

Whatever she touched grew at once as long as a yard. She went into the kitchen and touched the hot chilies. They became a yard long. She touched the cucumbers. They too grew a yard long. She touched whatever she fancied and made them all long.
Right at that moment, her little son was wakened by all this noise and began to cry. The mother ran in happily and touched his nose, saying, “My rajah!” And his nose at once grew long, a yard long. She screamed, horrified by her son’s bizarre looks. When the husband ran in, the child was howling, unable to bear the weight of his nose on his face. “O my poor son,” said the man and picked up the child, who at once crumbled into a heap of rupees. Then the husband and wife realized their blunder. They ran weeping to the holy man, who carefully kept his distance, and they begged of him, “Please, give us the third wish at once.”

“Tell me what you want.”

“We want everything to be as it was. Please see to it that our first two wishes are cancelled.”

The holy man said, “So be it.”

The child began to play in the cradle as before. The chilies and cucumbers shrank back to their normal size. The heaps of rupees vanished, and things returned to their original shapes. When the man and the woman turned around, the holy man was nowhere to be seen. They said, “Look, that was God himself, come down to teach us a lesson.”
From that day on, they gave up their miserly ways and lived happily.

I particularly enjoy this following short Three Wishes story, that adds another dimension to the usual ones we find in this genre; it highlights our ignorance of the fact that knowing oneself is hard and often painful work:

A man woke up one morning with no memory of himself. He looked around him, and saw that he was sitting by the side of a deserted road. He waited but no-one came. Finally, at dusk, a beautiful woman appeared. She was young, yet with an air of wisdom beyond her years. She approached the man.
"And now for your third and final wish. What is it to be?" she said.
"How can it be my third wish?" the man asked, "I don't remember even having the first two."
"Your second wish was to have everything go back to the way it was before your first. That is why you remember nothing, not even me. I am a Djinn. I have granted you two of your three wishes. You have one left."
The man thought a moment. "Very well," he said, "I don't believe you, but there's no harm in making a wish. I wish to know who I am."
"How strange," said the woman. "That was your first wish."

As a Personal Growth Coach, I like to tell this story to clients on their personal healing journey. It is a journey that often involves knowing ourselves more deeply than we might like to. I tell it to caution (but not to frighten!) them that surfacing things to work with can seem to make things harder and more complicated in the early stages, though the benefits down the line are tremendous.

This trick is not to make a second wish like the man in the story, for going back to the stage of ignorance of self, which is a place of stuckness, and of repeating unhelpful or harmful patterns - but for the courage and endurance to move ahead.

May you learn from old stories to make the most of your ‘here and now’.
Marguerite Theophil

If I tell you a story and if you listen, even if the things in the story did not quite happen that way
… it will tell you something true about me. …
And if I tell you a story, and you listen. If you listen with your ears and your mind, with your heart and soul
… even if the things in the story did not quite happen that way
… it will tell you something true about yourself.
~ Rocci Hildum


Unlike the story on paper designed to be read and re-read as the same story, the oral tale is always on the move. An oral rendering of a story is a living experience that is transformed by the heart-and-soul and the world view/experience of each teller.
Each time a tale is told, each time it moves and changes - sometimes in accord with the mood or memory or personal perspective of the teller and sometimes to fit the needs and age of a particular audience.

As the story travels from place to place it may even pick up a different emphasis from the culture in which it is given expression or emerge with a whole new focus and disregard parts of the old.

In the telling, the storyteller can decide on what exactly she or he wants to convey; the very same story can be pitched to give a different mood, feel or lesson, or experience.

Reading these two versions of a popular story will show you how the very same story is used in two rather different ways.

In these two tellings, it is interesting how really small twists and turns of emphasis can tweak a story to emphasize character -- either that wisdom was greedily held on to by one selfish character, or that scattered wisdom was collected together by one concerned character. The ‘two’ characters are actually one - the same trickster Anansi, but shaped by different tellers!

And both stories are differently angled to convey two somewhat dirfferent messages -- “Why it is to this very day some people have a great deal of wisdom, some have little, and others have none at all,” or “Why no one person has all the wisdom in the world, and therefore we need each other.”

...One version goes ...

A long time ago, Anansi the spider, had all the wisdom in the world stored in a huge pot. Nyame, the sky god, had given it to him. Anansi had been instructed to share it with everyone.

Every day, Anansi looked in the pot, and learned different things. The pot was full of wonderful ideas and skills.

Anansi greedily thought, "I will not share the treasure of knowledge with everyone. I will keep all the wisdom for myself."

So, Anansi decided to hide the wisdom on top of a tall tree. He took some vines and made some strong string and tied it firmly around the pot, leaving one end free. He then tied the loose end around his waist so that the pot hung in front or him.

He then started to climb the tree. He struggled as he climbed because the pot of wisdom kepts getting in his way, bumping against his tummy.

Anansi's son watched in fascination as his father struggled up the tree. Finally, Anansi's son told him "If you tie the pot to your back, it will be easier to cling to the tree and climb."

Anansi tied the pot to his back instead, and continued to climb the tree, with much more ease than before.

When Anansi got to the top of the tree, he became angry. "A young one with some common sense knows more than I, and I have the pot of wisdom!"

In anger, Anansi threw down the pot of wisdom. The pot broke, and pieces of wisdom flew in every direction. People found the bits scattered everywhere, and if they wanted to, they could take some home to their families and friends.

That is why to this day, no one person has ALL the world's wisdom. People everywhere share small pieces of it whenever they exchange ideas.

... And another tells it this way ...

Once upon a time, many, many years ago, Ananse Kokrufu, the great spider, became concerned because people had become careless about the wisdom of the world and large pieces of it were getting lost. So he decided that he, Ananse, would collect the wisdom of the world, all of it, and store it in one place for safe-keeping.

The place he chose was the very top of the highest palm wine tree in the forest. Good as his word, Ananse with great effort collected all the wisdom of the world, placed it in a large gourd, tied the gourd to his chest, and began to climb. Now it was a hot day, the tree was very tall, and about halfway up Ananse began to have trouble.

Far below, at the foot of the tree stood Nkitea, Ananse's small son. Looking up, he shouted to Ananse, "Father, if you truly had all of the wisdom of the world up there with you, you would have tied that gourd on your back."

This was too much even for the great spider. In a fit of rage he unfastened the gourd and hurled it toward the ground. When it hit, the gourd shattered into hundreds of pieces, and the wisdom of the world scattered all over the earth.

By this time people had learned their lesson and they came - each with his or her own gourd -- to collect whatever bit of wisdom they could hold. And that is why it is to this very day some people have a great deal of wisdom, some have little, and others have none at all.

What do you want your story to really, really say? Marguerite Theophil

People have forgotten how to tell a story.
Stories don’t have a middle or an end anymore.
They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning.
~Steven Spielberg