Painting the Enigmatic Goddess: My Sacred Art Journey
In this essay I describe my experience of process painting, an intuitive, meditative style of painting and how that experience evolved into my practice of painting sacred art images. These sacred art paintings are indicative of connection with the archetypal Sacred Feminine arising entirely out of my unconscious psyche without awareness of the symbols that I was painting. Upon study and contact with the sacred texts and literature of the Divine Feminine that I studied in my Master Degree in Women’s Spirituality, I now recognize them as representations of the rising archetypal feminine that are showing up for many women in dreams, art, music and creative arts . . . these images being symbolic of the rise and return of the Great Goddess and a reflection of an awakened feminine consciousness in our culture.
It was New Year’s Eve and unexpectedly, I had the house to myself. I settled down to read one of my text books for a class in Women’s Sacred Texts, Inanna Lady of Largest Heart – Poems of the Sumerian High Priestess Enheduanna by Betty De Shong Meador. I was enthralled by the story of this first known poet who was writing sacred texts over 4,000 years ago.
The book described various symbols of the ancient Sumerian Goddess Inanna: a gate of curled loop reed posts, scorpions, the planet Venus and the Universe. Something inside me stirred with recognition. The previous summer, after a pilgrimage to Greece where I visited the sacred sites of the Acropolis, and the very ancient oracle sites of Dodona and Delphi, I painted a Goddess type figure who contained the Universe. The figure had no facial features but was more of a Madonna outline containing the Universe. She was standing inside a gate of two curled posts. She had a scorpion type figure on either side of her. When I painted her I knew nothing about the images and symbols associated with Inanna. I only knew that it felt good and satisfying during the process of creation.
The painting was lying under the bed in my office. I had never painted anything like it before. As is the custom with process painting, an intuitive, meditative painting modality created by Michele Cassou (1995), one does not set out to paint a product or a particular image. Rather, the painter allows herself to be attracted to color and meditatively follow the creative flow to see what emerges on the paper. Michele Cassou says:
To create is to allow that deeper voice within us to emerge through insight. Spontaneous expression has an expansive intelligence that is nonlinear and nonlogical, much like our dreams. The purpose of the painting process is to unclog this channel of intuitive action and allow it to operate in every aspect of our life.(Michelle Cassou & Stewart Cubley, 1995, p. 73).
It is recommended that once the painting feels complete, the artist should put the painting away for a few months and then re-visit it with fresh eyes.
That New Year’s Eve, recognizing the symbols described in the book, I retrieved the painting. Yes, sure enough a Queen of heaven was there inside her gate of curled loop reed posts with two scorpion companions. Betty De Shong Meador’s (2000) interpretation of Enheduanna’s poetry eerily seemed to be a fitting description of the painting: “And she goes out / white-sparked, radiant / in the dark vault of evening’s sky / star-steps in the street / through the Gate of Wonder” (p. 7).
I was moved by Meador’s description of how she herself had came to Inanna: she had a dream containing the symbols of the looped posts:
A few years ago I found out something else about the symbol of Inanna that had appeared in my dream. Drawn with a stylus on wet clay, the stick figure with the circle on top was her name written in the earliest cuneiform script. You could say she appeared to me as a word, but in that time word and symbol were the same. In the beginning the word ‘Inanna’ was not an abstraction on the page. In the beginning there was not the word but the very presence of the goddess. And there she was in my dream, her stately form planted on the graves of a contemporary couple, a being full of power and mystery waiting to be discovered. (Betty De Shong Meador, 2000, p. 9)
On reading this paragraph I realized that I needed to pay more attention to these paintings that I had created through process painting and that something important on a soul level was happening for me with them.
I placed the painting above my altar and said a prayer of gratitude. It had taken five months for me to discover the associations of the ancient symbols contained in the painting. Meador places the symbol of the reed posts in historical context: “The graceful image of the tall reed posts with the head-like circle at the top appears on numerous clay tablets, cylinder seals, carvings, and religious articles from prehistoric Mesopotamia in the late fourth millennium” (Betty De Shong Meador, 2000, p. 12).
As I resonated with the information in the text I felt like the painting was a kiss from the Goddess and how fitting that it was now the eve of the New Year. In the book I read that the New Year was the time associated with festivals and celebrations (Betty De Shong Meador, 2000) for this most enigmatic and paradoxical of ancient Goddesses, Inanna.
The symbol of the reed posts as associated with Inanna is interpreted by Meador:
Certain Sumerian scholars see this symbol of Inanna as a gatepost situated on either side of the doorway to the storehouse . . . This symbol, then, signified Inanna’s position as guardian of the abundant harvest kept in the communal storehouse. As a doorpost, Inanna guards the passageway between two worlds, the outside ordinary world and the inside sacred womb-shaped sanctuary that shelters the abundant harvest . . . The doorway to the storehouse marked the transitional space between the secular outside and hallowed inside. In her most elemental form, ‘the beribboned standard’ heralded the entrance into that special state of mind called the sacred. (Betty De Shong Meador, 2000, p.15)
Betty De Shong Meador connects the symbolic reed posts with the emerging women’s movement: “Inanna’s tall reed standards stand like insurgent flags amid the bastion of traditional beliefs that restrict women. I am one of millions of women worldwide who are attempting to redefine themselves and their cultures in ways that foster women’s full creative potential” (Betty De Shong Meador, 2000, p. 11).
It seems fitting to connect the current rise of awakened feminine consciousness with these ancient symbols of a culture where the Divine Feminine was honored. These symbols are retained in the collective unconscious of the specie. Their recognition and appearance now in the art and dreams of many women can give us tangible hope that as we are doing the work of entering into the space of the sacred feminine with more consciousness, we are bringing more equanimity and balance to world culture that has for too long been skewed in patriarchal models. It is inherently empowering to receive and ultimately recognize these symbols as they point us the way towards a rich and deep, self-directed, inner sovereignty.
I was further taken with Betty De Shong Meador’s interpretation of the reed posts as connected to the Tree of Life: “It is possible that Inanna’s reed post symbol, first evident in the third millennium B.C.E., derives from the mythologem of the world tree or from the celestial pole that connects heaven and earth, the symbol of the ultimate point of orientation” (Betty De Shong Meador, 2000, p. 16). Funnily enough, shortly after I painted the Inanna painting I painted a tree goddess.
I remember that my process during the creation of the tree Goddess became stalled at one point. I had painted in closed eyes on the tree but my painting teacher asked me what it would feel like if I opened her eyes. This immediately felt right and once I opened her eyes the painting felt right as a benevolent tree Goddess looked down towards earth.
Meador gives a description of Enheduanna’s poems that bring insight into the paradoxical nature of Inanna:
In these poems we see that the very being of this goddess infuses and vivifies all nature and natural processes. She is the divine in matter. As such, she sustains the ebb and flow, the relentless paradoxical reality of the natural world. She exists between blessing and curse, light and dark, plenty and want, goodness and malevolence, life and death. Harsh as her reality may seem, it is the Real every living being must encounter. And she is the divine in matter. Implicit in her presence is a divine plan, a sacred order and meaning. Enigmatic as the plan may be, it is inferred by Inanna’s careful attention to the workings of the world and the people in it. (Betty De Shong Meador, 2000, p. 7)
Dianne Wolkstein (1983) describes Inanna’s role as a moon Goddess:
In Sumerian, Inanna’s name means literally ‘Queen of heaven,’ and she was called both the First Daughter of the Moon and the Morning and Evening Star (the planet Venus). In addition, in Sumerian mythology, she was known as the Queen of Heaven and Earth and was responsible for the growth of plants and animals and fertility in humankind. Then, because of her journey to the underworld, she took on the powers and mysteries of death and rebirth, emerging not only as sky or moon goddess, but as the goddess who rules over the sky, the earth, and the underworld. Here was the goddess in all her aspects. (Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer, 1983, p. xvi)
My Inanna painting was created in July 2012 after my pilgrimage to Greece, on completion of my first year in graduate school and at the conclusion of a 5 month priestess program. It was a year of full immersion in the literature, rituals, energies and sacred places of the Goddess. I have no doubt a collective unconscious runs through the human species and I intuit that with the creation of the Inannna painting my unconscious was already racing ahead to connect with the sacred texts I would be studying in 2013 and with the energy of Inanna.
As I reflect back to that New Year’s Eve and my glee at discovering the symbols of Inanna in the painting I remember also that I spent New Year’s Day in quiet meditation and walking the labyrinth. I was also suffering from a cold. What happened the very next day on January 2, 2013 threw me unexpectedly into a place of deep shadow and physical pain: I developed an excruciating migraine headache with many hours of pain. It was an underworld journey such as I had not experienced in several years. In hindsight perhaps since I had my introduction to the upper world of Inanna, I was also descending to the lower world of her shadow sister Ereshkigal and the scorpion was making itself known:
Scorpion and goddess are held together in some ancient meaning, juxtaposing the hair flowing goddess and her deadly sting, the ecstasy of her energetic joy beside the venomous sting of fate. This paradoxical alignment recurs thousands of years later in the goddess Inanna who continued to be associated with the scorpion, particularly in the form of Ishara, the goddess Istar/Inanna as mother. (Betty De Shong Meador, 2000, p. 27)
I found it significant that I had this migraine headache two days after my joy at recognizing the symbols of Inanna and a New Year’s Day of reflection and prayer at the labyrinth. It was humbling and also a teaching experience for me regarding the care and attention that I need to pay to these formidable energies of the Goddess as while they may be expansionary and light-filled, they can also act as a rotor rooter unearthing the unhealed places within us.
Betty De Shong Meador (1994) in Uncursing the Dark: Treasures from the Underworld describes the paradoxical Goddess and her fearsome powers:
[The] double edge of the transformed goddess is uncharted territory for most of us in modern life. Surviving the underworld passage, the woman now encompasses the full range of femaleness, of the archetypal feminine. On the one hand, she is a raging harpy, vicious, violent, ruthless. On the other, she is full of care and comfort and the source of creativity. The raw force of the feminine is the side of the goddess that has been banished to the dark of the underworld. This cluster of characteristics, her ‘dark side,’ fills the interstices of women’s bodies, smoldering in dark blood. She erupts boiling and savage. She is Ereshkigal enraged at her outcast prison. She strikes terror in the heart of the one chosen to carry her into the world. (Betty De Shong Meador, 1994, p. 108)
Meador (1994), offers very valuable perspective on the underworld journey, the domain Inanna’s sister Ereshkigal: “No one who has endured a descent will ever treat lightly the suffering it demands. Any descent I know or have heard of is disorienting, emotionally battering, depressing, full of anguish, shame, envy, and despair” (Betty De Shong Meador, 1994, p. 45).
I recovered from my migraine headache with humility. I don’t know what actually caused it but while the painting initially felt like a kiss from the Goddess, it also felt like the sting of the scorpion. I embrace the light and the shadow and know that this is the dance that we make as we move towards more conscious attunement with our own awakening as a soul and with the natural cycles. That is the message in the ancient religion and my upper and lower journeys with the painting reflected an embodied experience of light and shadow. Meador captures the necessary dance that we must engage in to restore the feminine self:
[Listen] carefully as the unconscious presents a new way for women. We have to be willing to uncurse the dark, to look into the face of the dark with expectation and humility. Out of the dark, women will restore their natural wholeness. Having been banished for 3,000 years from the doorstep of their own religion, women are entering a new sanctuary of self-understanding that will grow out of repeated descents into the fertile dark of the imagination. Out of the dark, new cultural forms will take life. The burden of consciousness these women bear will carry us into the new age. (Betty De Shong Meador, 1994, p. 130)
My journey with the Inanna painting and another series of paintings I did surrounding Inanna’s descent to the underworld taught me a lot about the need to understand, embody and honor these natural cycles of birth, death and re-birth and how they reflected in my personal journey. Our culture has not been comfortable with honoring cycles of dormancy and rest. We have forgotten the need for pause, for winter’s retreat and for fall’s dying away. Only spring and summer are venerated in this western culture of a 24/7 day, nonstop work and endless productivity goals. The model of constantly producing outwardly is inherently embedded in the patriarchal culture and one of the sharpest edges we have to face as a species as it is leading us to the limits with the planet. What if we learned more deeply about cycles from nature’s model? I feel it is a lesson for us on a personal, community and planetary scale.
In addition, for myself and many other women I know, only bright and sunny emotions were allowed to be expressed growing up. Being a ‘good girl’ meant keeping strong emotions to yourself and never expressing something that could rock someone else’s fragile ego. The Inanna journey with painting offered me a psycho-spiritual map out of that paradigm that was a path to self-censorship, shame and despair, and towards living a more balanced life that consciously included honoring all of me, honored my many descent journeys with compassion and with more understanding of these dynamics in the culture and natural cycles of life.
Reflecting on my process paintings has been a paradoxical exercise itself. The instructions in a process painting class are that artists should not interpret or place meaning on the process paintings – that they are just paintings and to interpret them and put meaning on them is to stymie the creative process. This works well while in the painting mode so that one does not prematurely short-circuit the images that may be presenting themselves to be painted. If too early an interpretation is determined, then the artist may be blocking some other unknown image from the unconscious that may be simmering in the background. It is a dance of feeling into the body, noticing where one is attracted and following an inner flow of aliveness. This painting method has been a tremendous creative outlet for me for many years and I appreciate the meditative and freeing energy where one does not have to set out to “paint something,” but rather to just play with paint on the paper. That being said, on further reflection, my inner guidance offered that these paintings are teachings for me and they were worth examination as the images, once complete and after some time had passed, were revealing some meaningful symbols of the Goddess. Meador (1994) describes the emerging archetypal feminine and women’s experiences with images from dreams and imagination:
Women have been seized by life circumstance or by the compelling force of inner images from dreams or visions or fertile imagination and are able to follow that autonomous attraction we call the unconscious psyche as it tumbles them towards an altogether new orienting matrix, the archetypal feminine. (De Shong Meador, 1994, p. 109)
As my experience with process paintings show, the archetypal feminine is alive and well.
It is time that we bring her out of the shadows of our psyches and on into form so that we can bring ourselves into wholeness and balance and support an awakened feminine consciousness in the culture.
Several years have now passed since I completed my graduate degree and in that time my painting practice has awakened a rich source of inner wisdom and is a primary focus for my self-care and spiritual practice. I have been blessed to study briefly with Shiloh Sophia in a couple of my graduate school classes, and more recently with Flora Aube and her Art of Allowing Academy where my understanding and painting practice with the sacred feminine has evolved and deepened. I create each painting in sacred ritual and ceremony and continue to be delighted and surprised at the arrival of Kwan Yin, Sekhmet and other ancient sovereign feminine figures that emerge. I realize now that the images that show up on my canvas are mirror reflections and each has offered some message that I have needed to bring forward regarding my journey as a soul. They have deeply nourished my inner life, brought healing, wholeness and joy.
Kathie Carlson, psychotherapist and teacher of feminine psychology writes: “Everywhere, individually and collectively, people are ‘waking up’ to a new connection with a transpersonal and expanded view of the Feminine and finding new meaning and vitality in their lives because of it. For woman, this reconnection touches a profound hunger, a soul need to grow into and claim a Self that is bigger than the cultural dictates, that values all of her experience, and gives a deeper and more authentic meaning to her life” (p. 77).
In these times of great cultural upheaval and change I am thrilled to invite women into an experience of sacred art journeys to cultivate their inner-priestess, their inner wise woman, their inner wild woman. The sacred feminine essence resides within each woman, sometimes at the edge of her awareness. These sacred art journeys are transformational opportunities for each woman to bring forward her sacred feminine essence and receive her own inner-directed messages from her soul that allow her to grow, heal whatever may need healing, and allow her to thrive with authenticity and joy. © Kathy Stanley
Carlson, Kathie. (1989). In her image: The unhealed daughter’s search for her mother. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Cassou, Michele and Stewart Cubley. (1995). Life, paint and passion: Reclaiming the magic of spontaneous expression. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.
De Shong Meador, Betty. (1994). Uncursing the dark: Treasures from the underworld. Wilmette, Illinois: Chiron Publications.
De Shong Meador, Betty. (2000). Inanna lady of largest heart: Poems of the Sumerian high priestess Enheduanna. Austin, TX: U of Texas Press.
Wolkstein, Diane and Samuel Noah Kramer. (1983). Inanna queen of heaven and earth: Her stories and hymns from Sumer. New York, NY: Harper & Row.