In a 1944 essay (“Is Theology Poetry?”), C.S. Lewis remarked, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” As one who embraced Christianity later in life, Lewis had a keen appreciation of how a new discovery of belief can throw a bright reflected glory on the world and everything in it.
The mind, which craves new connections of any kind, takes a special delight in those intellectual connections that carry an associated weight of affection. Who has not noted with pleasure the increased sweetness imparted to a beautiful place by the remembrance of a few precious moments shared there with one’s beloved? How much more, then, might we linger over a place, a picture, a happy turn of phrase that brought to mind some past or promised communion with the divine, assaulting our senses with a sudden tingle of the holy.
Like Lewis, I have been in the habit of finding God everywhere, illuminating everything. And besides amid the glories of the natural world, nowhere for me does the spirit of God breathe more vibrantly than in literature. The scriptures of various religious traditions are, of course, replete with references to God. But I’ve encountered beautiful spiritual insights in books by authors from Victor Hugo to Friedrich Nietzsche.
Since “discovering” my Heavenly Mother, I find that I glimpse new layers of meaning in stories and books I’ve read and loved for years. Just like the Father and the Son, She is everywhere if we only think to look.
Demeter and Persephone
For example, as I was preparing to go to the temple a few months ago, I pondered how the mythological story of Demeter and Persephone sheds new light on the Judeo-Christian story of Eve, and on our own journey here in a fallen world. Like Eve, Persephone was seduced by the Lord of the Underworld, beguiled into partaking of a forbidden fruit, and subsequently redeemed.
As a member of a church where we participate in sacred temple rituals, I’ve always been fascinated by the Eleusinian Mysteries, a sacred Greek re-enactment of the story of Demeter and Persephone.
Because the ancient initiates generally kept their vows of secrecy, we don’t know exactly how the Mysteries were celebrated. But we do know that they depicted the story of Persephone’s abduction by Hades, and her mother’s grief and search for her beloved daughter. They also dramatized how Persephone tasted the fruit of the underworld (traditionally a pomegranate), and was thus doomed to remain there until her mother interceded for her, and brought about her triumphant return for part of every year.
For the Greeks, Persephone represented a sort of Everywoman (and Everyman). Participants in the Eleusinian Mysteries saw themselves as Persephone, descending to the underworld, being mourned and sought by Demeter, and then ascending triumphantly to the light for a glorious reunion with their Mother Goddess in a blissful afterlife.
In our religion, we see Adam and Eve as an archetype for all of us. After being sent down from the presence of God into mortality and born innocent, as they were in the garden, we eventually taste the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil for ourselves, which gives us new understanding, but also causes us to fall from grace.
For us, the central resolution to the narrative is the coming of Jesus Christ, sent by our Heavenly Parents to redeem us from the consequences of our own misdeeds. But the Eleusinian Mysteries also teach me that like Persephone, I have a Mother who waits anxiously, always figuratively seeking after me. For Her, something is missing even in Heaven until my safe return.
The desolation of Demeter at her loss, and her single-minded devotion to Persephone illuminate for me the transcendent love of a Mother who will do anything, find any way to save Her children, and adds a brilliant new facet to my comprehension of the love of God, “which passeth all understanding.”
George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin is on my daughter’s reading list next year for the homeschool curriculum we use. I read it myself as a child, and was entranced by the story of Princess Irene and her heroic adventures.
Christian commentaries on MacDonald’s books encourage us to see attributes of God the Father and Christ in the wise and ancient great-great grandmother whom Lootie does not believe in and Curdie cannot see. It’s almost amusing to me now that when reading MacDonald I never thought to picture the great-great-grandmother as an obvious allegory for God the Mother too.
And in fact, MacDonald portrayed her with several symbols traditional to the Divine Feminine. For example, when Irene is climbing the stairs of the tower, before we even meet her great-great-grandmother, she hears a “low sweet humming sound” that reminds her of nothing more than “a very happy bee.” Many goddesses, including Demeter, were associated with bees, and the Queen bee is a ready symbol of feminine divinity. “Irene” was the name of the ancient Greek goddess of peace, and is shared by the young princess and her great-great-grandmother.
Later, the great-great-grandmother takes Princess Irene to visit her “chickens,” which turn out to be pigeons. The Egyptian goddess Ishtar, as well as the Phoenician Astarte and Greek Aphrodite, were often pictured with doves and pigeons. The Holy Spirit in Christianity, symbolized iconically by the dove, is also sometimes connected with the divine feminine in the person of Sophia, the “Wisdom” of the Old Testament. Later, we learn that great-great grandmother Irene has her own moon, another common symbol of female deity which figures heavily in the story.
As a little girl, I didn’t take in the symbolism. But I was entranced by great-great-grandmother Irene. C.S. Lewis writes of feeling a sense of the holy in The Princess and the Goblin, and the book affected me in same way. There was something beautiful and mysterious and awe-inspiring, yet simultaneously tender and familiar in that enigmatic woman at the top of the stairs. I recognize that same feeling now when I contemplate my Heavenly Mother, and realize that when I loved great-great-grandmother Irene, I was really loving Her.
And then there’s the immortal father of modern fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien. When my daughter asked me the other day what Heavenly Mother looked like, I told her I didn’t know. But I expressed my opinion that she looked a little like me, a little like her, and a lot like Galadriel.
The wise and powerful Galadriel (who although she personifies the goodness and wisdom of the elves is feared and distrusted in the degenerate folklore of dwarves and men as a dangerous enchantress or witch) is not Tolkien’s only Elvish queen with quasi-divine attributes.
The Silmarillion tells the story of Melian, a Maia, or minor goddess, who weds Thingol, king of the elves. Not to wax nerdish on the subject of Elvish genealogy, but their child was Luthien the fair, the elf-maid who wed the man Beren and became mortal. Both here and in the later story of Arwen we see echos of Persephone and Eve.
In The Lord of the Rings, both Aragorn and Arwen are descended from Luthien. Their kinship and the rejoining of the sundered line, as well as Arwen’s fateful choice to become mortal like Luthien, are pivotal to the storyline. Aragorn’s legitimacy as king comes from his lineage, which is not only royal, but divine, through his foremother Melian.
However, Tolkien’s exploration of the Divine Feminine runs much deeper. His beautiful creation myth, the Ainulindalë, tells how Eru the One made a great Music, aided by his assistants, the Valar. That Music was the spiritual creation of the world, and the Valar were later sent down to accomplish its physical creation in accordance with the blueprint of the Music.
Chief among these Valar are Manwë, Lord of the winds, and Varda, Queen of the stars. Manwë and Varda are married, and rule together in the Blessed Land to the West. In the beginning, another named Melkor was also powerful among the Valar, but he fell into evil, and the Valaquenta recounts of him and Varda that “Melkor she knew from before the making of the Music and rejected him, and he hated her, and feared her more than all others whom Eru had made.” It is no surprise, then, that in his more well-known works, the Divine Feminine has a special power against evil in all its forms.
The elves of Middle Earth named Varda Elbereth, and revered her above all the other Valar, because it was she who made the stars that lighted their way when they were in fear of the evil one. The Elvish hymn to her, A Elbereth Gilthoniel (O Elbereth, Starkindler) appears three times in different forms in The Lord of the Rings. When Frodo, Sam and Pippin meet a group of elves on their way out of the Shire, Frodo is able to identify them as “High Elves” who have traveled to the Blessed Land across the sea, because “they spoke the name of Elbereth.”
Later, Galadriel gives Frodo the light of a star, one of the symbols of Elbereth, enclosed in a crystal phial. It is this phial that Sam uses, in his extremity of fear and danger in Shelob’s Lair, to ward off evil. As he holds it up against the darkness and filth of Shelob, the words of the hymn to Elbereth come unbidden to his lips. His prayer is heard, and the phial flames with the light of the star. Shelob is vanquished and the Quest is saved.
Although Tolkien famously decried allegory, his stories have been widely interpreted through religious eyes. Both Aragorn and Gandalf can be seen as messianic figures, and Frodo’s sacrificial quest to destroy evil is redolent of Christian themes. However, as Tolkien intended, his work has ”varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers.” Even the very brief sketch I’ve given here is enough to begin to uncover the rich thread of divine feminine symbolism running through Tolkien’s epic work.
I love that one of Tolkien’s roles for Varda (and one of the most important, at least as she is seen by the elves and other peoples of Middle Earth) is in creation–the creation of the stars! In traditional readings of scripture, and more explicitly in our temple drama, the creation of the cosmos is dominated by male deity. But like Tolkien, I see the hand of my Heavenly Mother as well as my Heavenly Father in creation. Having walked with Frodo under the stars of Middle Earth, I cannot but see the divine feminine in starlight, moonlight, and the glories of the natural world.
Rumi and the Beloved
I am a long-time admirer of the 13th century Persian poet Rumi. He was a Sufi, part of the mystical movement within Islam that seeks personal spiritual union of the believer with god. His devotional poems are written from a lover to his divine Beloved. They are beautiful on many levels, and make perfect love poems even for human lovers. For example, I think my husband still has the card I made for him early in our marriage with this poem:
The minute I heard my first love story
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.
Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.
They’re in each other all along.1
Rumi’s mystical union of lover with Beloved symbolizes the union of the human soul with God. But I like to also read his poems as the love poetry of our Heavenly Parents to each other. Consider this:
In your light I learn how to love.
In your beauty, how to make poems.
You dance inside my chest,
where no one sees you,
But sometimes I do, and that
sight becomes this art.2
If you are unfamiliar with Rumi, the enduring beauty of the Biblical Song of Solomon provides Jews and Christians with their own divine love poem, born out of the same Middle Eastern cultural tradition. Can we not envision our Heavenly Parents singing to one another that “many waters cannot quench love”?
There is a sense of security for children in the belief that their parents’ love for one another will last forever. I think of God’s love not as emanating from one lonely being toward eternal subordinates, but as the passionate, holy affection of two perfect lovers toward one another, which overflows endlessly to fill the immensity of space, inevitably enveloping us in its brightness. We are the children of an eternally happy home, where our parents are together, in love as always, and waiting anxiously to welcome us back.
As Mormons, we have a long tradition of finding “types of Christ” in even the most unlikely of places. But we haven’t really extended our talents much in exercising that allegorical muscle in the direction of the divine feminine. No doubt these literary echoes of Heavenly Mother are only the tip of the iceberg. I look forward to discovering many more, and hope that you’ll share with me any that are particularly meaningful to you.
photo credit: Demeter & Persephone