By Batya Weinbaum, Susana Sanchez-Valenzuela
By Susana Sanchez Valenzuela
I have heard it said that the myths that reign our lives tend to find us rather than us find them. Anyone who has studied myth to any degree knows that in each one we are able to find deep, universal truths about ourselves and our world. It is why we continue to revisit the world’s myths with new adaptations and retellings, making plays, movies, games, etc., and continue to teach it to children in schools. Myths retain their value even in the age of fake news, social media and the 24-hour news cycle. Still, most of the myths we know consciously are limited to the Greek and Roman myths we learned in school, sanitized and trivialized to fit into the curriculum. We miss out on the rich detail and exploration of archetypes, their character flaws, and gifts and how these have valuable lessons to teach us. A wider understanding of myth from around the world would allow us to see that despite our stories being told in different ways they reveal very much the same desires, fears and truths of our existence.
It is exactly why I was drawn to the art installations at “Femenina Sube” on the island of Isla Mujeres, Mexico from the moment I first saw it. It was an in-your-face attack of color and symbology that made me stop and wonder what was going on. I read up on the project before meeting and befriending Batya and was intrigued to know that this installation was entirely dedicated to the stories -myths- of goddesses across time and space. I was baffled that there were so many women, heroines with incredible stories rooted in our collective human history I knew nothing about. I happened to find the studio open for a tour on a family trip just after I gave birth for the first time. There I first learned the stories of the shapeshifter Ea/Enke, a Roman priestess who saved the empire, and of the pre-Christian fertility goddesses whose names I’d only read in passing. But among all these goddesses from the Middle East, Europe, Australia and even the patron goddess of the island, I felt the gaping absence of Our Lady of Guadalupe. She is our modern-day mother goddess in Mexico whose roots lie with Coatlicue, the Aztec mother goddess who is made of snakes, and was surely a terrifying sight to the conquistadores. I quickly accepted Batya’s invitation to add her likeness among the others.
I found this experience to be one that forced me to dig deeper into the symbology of birth, life and death and our place in the cosmos. While working on the inside of the studio surrounded by the many mosaic goddesses that others had carefully created, I felt grounded and serene despite the seemingly chaotic events unfolding in the world. In creating my image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I first wrestled with the very different image of Coatlicue -a figure with two outward facing, ferocious serpents, her skirt made of many more snakes. As I did I meditated on the serpent-like nature of rivers, bowels, and umbilical cords, all life giving and sustaining, albeit in different ways. Still, I decided that the image of the serpent was perhaps too harsh for the audience of spectators of the building, since most by now have separated the aspects of birth and destruction that were once united in the same goddess. In this moment (from early 2018 through early 2020) so marked by uproar and political change, when women everywhere were making their voices heard on the streets, I also felt in need of the energy of Guadalupe, a nurturing and reassuring presence that begs the question, “Am I not here? I who am your mother?”.
Like so many other projects, Femenina Sube fell victim to the circumstances ushered in by the COVID-19 pandemic. For me the project marks a watershed experience, unknowingly preparing me for life post 2020. I’m not even sure if Guadalupe still stands where she once looked on in company of her Indian sisters Durga and Kali, the Irish Sheela Na Gig and the Nordic goddess, Freya; but she did for a moment in time and my early motherhood journey was marked by my experience in a beautiful and profound way. It allowed me to feel connected to other mothers across time and space even though I had begun the project feeling isolated in my own life. The changes I underwent, seeing and feeling all the connections with divine female energy, have led me to meet and connect with incredible women working in art, conservation, and midwifery. The experience with the goddesses has filled me with the desire to continue uncovering these stories and exploring how the goddess myths can help us to imagine a world in which we center mothers and the power of creation. I have become especially interested in birth work and the rituals and practices that surround birth and the postpartum period around the world. I’ve come to believe that conversations about the archetypes of the goddesses and the divine feminine energy can serve as a starting point for us to reclaim our rites of passage into the different stages of womanhood, beginning with examining our relationship with our own bodies and environments. And for my part, I will be sure to share the goddesses with the women and girls around me so that their names and stories continue to have life.
Feminine Sube: The Tour
By Batya Weinbaum
The Front Wall as Explained to Ignacio from Santiago, February 2016*
“Feminina Sube” has been in existence since January 4, 2013. It’s about the energy of IxChel, the goddess of Isla Mujeres, who is protector of the mad, poets, growth and creativity.
Here she is in the oldest representation of her as the old moon goddess sitting in her crescent moon holding her fertility symbol the bunny. In other more modern representations of her on the island, she is posing like a playboy bunny herself, on her knees with her bare breasts extended seductively. But these are modern representations of women made by males to fit in with other pornographic images of women being produced on the island, like a painting on a wall going out towards the ruin on the left of a woman whose head ends up being a toilet…she doesn’t really have a head, it just ends up being the base of a toilet. So we have a great deal of distortion of the image of women on this Island of Women, necessitating the creation of a mural like this one, reclaiming images not only of IxChel but of other powerful ancient female forms as well. The island was named that because of the figurines of females found in a temple at conquest, leading to much speculation on the part of the Spanish, even that this had been the island to which the original Amazons had retreated when defeated in Greek myth.
On 21/12 /12 the day of the Mayan prophecy there were about 20,000 of us at a ritual called Synthesis that someone from San Francisco organized at Chichen Itza. This is a Mayan ruin site further inland on the Yucatan. All the people there were welcoming in the new age so that’s why the shop is in part called My Aquarian Age.
The people there were talking about the old Mayan age of 13,000 years which was ending. All the people there were talking about the new energy coming, the female energy coming to save the planet. So I came home and rented this storefront which was completely white outside and inside was completely dark and gray, with one or two pieces of wood and a falling apart sink and toilet. I have been transforming it ever since.
This first goddess immediately to the right of the front door is Ma de Sumeria…
What we are doing is putting fertility goddesses from around the world up on the outside and inside of the storefront, creating a channel for the goddess or for all the goddesses to try to help give IxChel the power and support and strength of her sisters from other cultures.
And this first is called Ma de Sumeria. She’s got the wings and down here she is holding up her breasts and then she’s got a lot of hip action going on. Then we added other wings so she looks like a butterfly. Because there were kids and they said, is this a butterfly, and I said ok, we will make her a butterfly—so that is how the project is collaborative—people come along and have input as they are here.
Notice she is wearing this pointed hat. This is a conical hat of power. Over time this sort of hat traditionally became by the time of the medieval ages, spiritually a tool for women to focus. As a power hat, it focuses on bringing the energy down from above and bringing this powerful energy down into the earth. You will see that these hats became symbolic of females using supernatural powers—for example, witches’ hats are tall and pointed. In the medieval ages, the tall, pointed hat was also a power hat for women. She is also from the area of the world where the archaeological sites destroyed by ISIS–the name of the pan-Islamic state, not to be confused with Isis the goddess of prior days. So, we are creating a place where these goddesses can find a home and still be connected to our world and speak to people.
Next to her is Asherah. She was the original creator of the world. In original images of her, her arms are up, and she is holding a baby, or the earth, the world–you can’t tell if it is the earth or a baby. She is holding a brown mass in her hands. Originally, she was the creator of the universe, and then she became the consort of Baal in Babylonian culture, and then the wife of Yaweh in Hebrew culture, and then she completely disappeared. She is mentioned in Genesis thirty times, but then the Deuteronomists took out all references to her. I went to East Jerusalem; I looked in the Rockefeller Museum at all the icons of her that I could find. I took pictures of them. I learned when I was there that they still worshiped her in the groves, when women couldn’t pray in the temples.
Next is Artemis of Ephesus. She was the goddess of the Amazons who lived on the island of Ephesus. She is also wearing the conical hat. That is the hat of power. She is holding not one breast but many breasts. Those are all little nipples here. Because Artemis of Ephesus is a fertility goddess as well. All three goddesses on the front wall are fertility goddesses.
And every day we write a new saying on the wall.
Above that is the sacerdote from the temple of Delphi to the right of the white tiles and above, above the Artemis of the Amazons. The last king of the Roman Empire was getting messages that his kingdom was falling apart. Stars were falling, and there were natural catastrophes. So, he bought the Sibylline Books, the books of the Sibylline priestesses who channeled the energy of the Great Ma. At first, they wanted a very high price, and he wouldn’t pay it, so they burnt a third of the books. And then he still wouldn’t pay it, so they burnt the second third of the books, and in the end, he bought the last remaining third for the same price that they wanted. These priestesses were especially good at marketing and being in the material world.
When he got the books of the Sibylline priestesses, he read that he should bring the Great Mother to Rome, to save the empire, just like the prophecy of today about bringing the Great Mother back. He was sent the same message years ago. So, it is amazing that we are back in the same place in history, where we need to balance what is going on with the feminine energy.
And so, she is. She is the diviner, the sacerdote, diciendo la verdad to the Roman king when he came to ask her advice about whether he should do what the Sibylline books said. She said yes, go for it, go bring the Great Mother to Rome to save your kingdom, so there he was with all his chariots and his army, and he did what she said. He went for it. They went up Mt. Ada for this huge black rock, the Great Ma, that they took off the mountain top, and they brought her into Rome. Just like that! When they brought her in, there were flowers being strewn around, and gold being strewn around, so greeting and welcoming the Great Mother to Rome became an annual festival, and then there were temples built to the Great Mother in Rome, and all over the Roman Empire. They still fell, but they tried.
Up to the left of the white tile wall with the sayings is Conchi, The Virgin of Immaculate Conception. She is the patron saint of the island. She is the modern, hybrid form of IxChel and the Virgin Mary, dressed in blue and white lace. People come to see her regularly in the church in the center of the square as she is the modern form of the fertility goddess. This is what happened in a lot of places when the Spanish came. The people kept worshiping their traditional deities and goddesses but merged with what the Spanish brought. The IxChel, the goddess sitting on the moon, has an umbilical cord in very small tiles leading out to Conchi, who has a silver moon strung horizontally in broken mirrors across her pelvis. She is taken out of the church on November 30, the beginning of her annual feast celebration. First, she is taken out of the glass box to the right of the altar on the stage and put center stage and left there all day where people come alone or in large family groups to kneel in front of her, to ask her for things, and to pray. If they come in groups, those who need assistance are helped to go up to her one at a time, and often as each prays, the person cries. After several days of receiving personal supplicants like this, she is moved outside. People gather outside and sing to her. She is paraded around the island on a truck, and all the moving vehicles follow her. And then they put her on a boat, and she circumnavigates the island on December 8, with streams of boats following her.
On the island that one of these figures is on or near, the Artemis of Ephesus, the women do the same thing today, so maybe there is some relationship between the original Amazon island, and what the women did and do there, and what happens here. The tourist island once dedicated to IxChel is named Isla Mujeres, Island of Women, because Queen Isabella of Spain had classical advisors in her court, since she wanted to know about military maneuvers in the Iliad. They told her about the Amazons who left Europe and fled to the New World. So, she was funding adventurers, or conquistadores, to come to the New World and look for gold, spices, and Amazons. So that is another related derivation of the name, Island of Women. The Spanish explorers would go around and ask the native Indians, where are the Amazons, looking for tribes of women and they would say, oh not here, but on the next island, or, not here, but down the river. Consequently, we have Isla Mujeres here, and we have the Amazon River in Brazil, and we have all around South America different places that have the same indigenous name indicating places of pure women—so maybe the indigenous people were getting bigger tips by telling the conquistadores what they wanted to hear, and the conquistadores were getting their funding refilled by Isabella because they were constantly telling her, we have to go back and go down that river, or we have to go back to that island…so it was a funding thing. And/or a genuine interaction between indigenous worlds and myths, and the projections of myths of the colonialists.
Whoever comes along can put up something….and add what they like, through discussion. So, above the Ma de Sumeria and to the left of Conchi, stands the Egyptian sign for life, the Ankh. This was done by a couple from San Francisco. An artist from Canada, Jesse, did the sign, Feminina Sube, and the sign in English also, Feminine Rising: My Aquarian Age. She also did the two eyes winking.
And here to the left of the door we have Ea of Mesopotamia.
She can at will turn into Enke, her masculine counterpart. She’s also got the conical hat with the connections coming from the cielo, the stars and the sun, through her conical hat helping her ground out the energy and bringing it down to the earth through her feet. She used to change forms and become her male counterpart automatically. So there was a lot of fluidity between male and female in Mesopotamian culture, which is what our society seems to be looking for today.
Above are two cats, above Ea. One is Cutie Cute, and the other Megan. They are flying up to reach enlightenment represented by the winking eyes that Jesse made. And they are singing, “Que Milagro Esté Planeta,” a chant I got from the sea once when swimming back to the beach. I got the idea of memorializing the cats who died here the first year—one of them got pneumonia and then the other one died three weeks after—when I went to the Tarot Sculpture Garden of Nikki Saint Phallet in Tuscany. In addition to making three-story mosaic buildings of major arcana tarot cards, Nikki also put murals up with tiles telling the story of what was going on with the making of the project, including a breakup with her boyfriend, so she told the story in tiles…so I thought to memorialize my cats this way.
To the left of Ea, the Ancient Hittite Goddess of Wine stands on a mountain top opening her skirt wide. She has two sets of wings, and a conical hat. In Hittite culture they used to drink wine, fornicate, conceive babies, and worship her.
Below, to the left of the Hittite wine goddess in the bottom corner, a Wiccan priestess placed a star, a pentacle which is significant in Wiccan worship. She also put the sign of the triple goddess, and a blue sign of the Flor de Lis that represents the area in France that Mary went to after Jesus was killed. There are Christian traditions that still worship female energy in that area of the world, with pilgrimages made to absorb the energy the Mother of God still blesses followers with today. Above the triple goddess symbol is where a Druid priestess made these three street lines, the symbol of life in Druid culture spelled Awen. We had this whole debate over Facebook with my independent studies students in various mythology and feminist publishing classes. If we are having a feminine mural, why are we having what looks like phallic symbols? So, we did our research, and placed the cauldron of Cerridwen, and the Celtic goddess of fertility and life around what looked like a phallic sign. She is brewing the fertility and life force in her cauldron. And it’s bubbling up, Where it bubbles up it says, The Hittite Goddess of Wine. So she creates through her cauldron….did that happen? No, this is Celtic culture and that is Hittite culture. But we are talking about the relationship between all the different cultures. Above the cauldron, a woman from Bosnia was living on the island. She put up Oye, the Yoruban goddess of wind flying through the air with her nine scarves, representing her nine children, bringing down the energy from above to fertilize the below….
I gave this form of the tour many times, and at this point would stop to gather people’s reactions as a form of researching the success of the art itself, to see whether or not all the information provided on a cognitive level had had any underlying impact at all, or whether it was beside the point in the spectator’s viewing and aesthetic experiences. This is one of the recorded exchanges that occurred, showing a switch from historical presentation to a focus on the artistic process of the installation, with a young student from Chile who had knocked on the studio door late one night:
Ignacio: “I am amazed at this installation. I see water, shining, it’s beautiful…I love the composition and how it changes in the day and the night. It is a mix of all the cultures of the world and all the feminine symbols. On the same wall…the goddesses, in the corner, they seem to be moving as one, everywhere…”
“Yes this is right…this one bleeds into this one,” I answered. “This one is standing on a mountain and so is that one. And it almost looks like the symbols are falling out of this one’s skirt. If you stand across the street at night and look at them, they all meld together and look like they are coming up and out into the street in one big vast undulating wave.
“I also have to say that in the beginning, I was buying tiles when I started. And then I realized how much it was going to cost. I started gathering tiles from all over the island. So, then it became like a recycling of trash. Because you could find these trash piles of tiles everywhere.
And then you can see here through this glass, originally this had paint on it. Because when I first got here, I painted murals, and then I covered them with mosaics. And you can see here, something always needs repair–glass falls out. But then…okay…people started giving things to the project. Like a local businessman who is making a place with tiles, he donated some large tiles which we used along the bottom. And we got a broken chess set from a vendor on the corner. He couldn’t sell it because the chess set had been broken up.
“Then we started this process of putting color in the cement—because if it’s all tile, it’s too much to look at. So, we started to break down different ways to use space, like purple behind the cats…And the idea of the use of the mirrors, really because I started finding mirrors. And then finding glass. And then other people started bringing me mirrors—oh, here is a mirror I am throwing out. Or a tourist would say, I found a pile behind my hotel, and then they would bring the pile over. Or a guy working in construction would say, could you use black? Oh yah, ok! And then we could use black… the gift of the boyfriend of one of the women working on it from the island. Sometimes I find little gifts with notes in the door. Sometimes I find bags of tiles and I don’t even know who left them. It’s great!
“And also, the aesthetic, of, you can’t really see what it is, you really have to think about what you are seeing. I wanted it to be that way, like when you go to look at ruins and you don’t really know what you are looking at and you must use your imagination to try to comprehend what is in front of you. Like this says goddess of wine, but you really must figure it out…and we used an old bike tire, some bottle caps, and an electric coil, things we find…and coins. So, you start to think about the composition, the materials, what is this, why?
“Some coins were put in by an artist from Turkey. People like to have a specific thing to point to, and say, I did this star on this skirt. So, it was a challenge to me to find out what someone’s energy was, and what they wanted to put in. Sometimes, I would need grunt work, and just filling in, scraping and cleaning, but people would want to be creative and add something new, and not do repair. Sometimes things I was using in the house would break, and I would just put the pieces into the mural as I went along. I even put in a painted tile I made a long time ago of the Ancient Winged Hittite Goddess. She is very special to me. Her name is Shaushkah. She flies through the air. She dives down into your depths and finds your lost parts and picks them up and flies them up to the top of a mountain for healing.Working on this project for me has been very healing, as it has been, for many who come along.”’
*This piece was developed from transcript of an actual tour of the outside wall of the project; for a more academic presentation of much of the material such as how the island got its name and the nature and function of the goddess IxChel, as well as the story of birth in the field, see Weinbaum, Batya, Islands of Women and Amazons: Representations and Realities. University of Texas Press, 2000. Various versions of this are available on Amazon.