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I Must Go Down to the Sea Again

by Deborah Streeter

I’m starting a new series about ocean deities from various world traditions. My usual writing style is to research, describe and explain (as I am doing right now.)  In this series I intend instead to imagine the deities speaking for themselves.  I will try to be accurate and respectful of different cultures, but I am not an expert in anthropology or mythology.   I am intrigued with how prescientific people create stories to understand the mysteries of the deep.  Often it’s an ocean goddess.   Why female?  These myths say more about human nature than about the ocean.  We still personify and anthropomorphize the sea and its creatures. Let’s see who might be ruling the deep.

 

Wednesday
Apr042018

Ran, Norse Ocean Goddess

This is the fourth in my series on mythological ocean deities.  I am trying to give them each voice. Like the ocean, they are all creative and  powerful.  They are also a little annoyed at how they have been portrayed, marketed and coopted.  This  week’s ocean deity, Norse goddess Ran, is really pissed, angry and deadly.  Watch out!

 I am the ocean and I am rough and dangerous and deadly.  My name is Ran.  That means “theft” and “robber” in my native Norse language.  I live to steal your life and rob from you all that is precious. You think you can sail on me for fish or to travel to a new land?  Stupid ones, you are nothing in my eyes.  Beware!!

People draw pictures of me with a net.  Not a helpful generous net to catch fish to feed their family.  No, a deadly net to strangle and drown them.  I drown and kill anyone who is stupid enough to trespass on my realm.  Stupid fuckers, you die on my watch.

You nice literate readers of this educated series on ocean deities -  don’t you admire Sedna and wish you had a Te-Fiti in your culture?  Well you don’t, you are so separate from all life forces created you that you think the ocean is a pretty backdrop and sweet salty friend.  Am I kind and gentle?  NO!!!  Will I embrace you with comfort and give you new life?  NO!!!

I am here to steal your life, suffocate and drown you with my net, and generally to end your life.  That’s what oceans do and that’s what I do.

You stupid ungrateful humans – you know I am the force of ocean and death, yet you draw a picture of me like this, as if I were a sweet, quiet and malleable handmaid to my husband Aegir.  Your pathetic myths say he is also an ocean god, and we are some kind of power couple.  Please, he’s just a pathetic jotunn, a giant, just half god, half mortal, just a demigod.  Look at this picture, it’s as if I were serving him!  Fuck that shit!  I am the dangerous powerful force of the sea and he is just a bit player in this drama. 

Only good thing he did was help me give birth to our beloved nine daughters, the waves.  More about them in a minute….

I just want you to get it that I am angry and loud and dangerous and scary.  I am the ocean.  Watch out!  My job is to rage and destroy!  Sure I have lots of fish here to feed you.  And I can be your path to a new home or a reunion with old friends.  Good luck travelling my path and fishing my harbors.  Don’t forget, my job is to kill you, trap you in my nets, drown you, crush you and then eat you.

So my sweet nine daughters are the waves.  Aegir and I named them Biodoughadda (Bloody Hair) Bylgia (Billow), Drofn (Foaming Sea), Dufa (Wave), Hefring (Lifting), Himinglaeva (Transparent on Top), Hronn (Wave), Kilga (Cool Wave) and Uor (Wave.)  Ok, we had some great sex and it was fun to give birth to these nine beautiful daughters.  Aegir kept saying, where are the sons?  Where are my boys I can play catch with?  Too bad, buster.  All girls and we rule the waves.  We are bloody and transparent and cool and foaming and lifting. IE, we are women, deadly and dangerous. 

So just try sailing on our bodies.  No luck.  I am Ran, ocean of all and mother of the waves.  Sail on me and die.

Copyright © 2018 Deborah Streeter

Thursday
Mar292018

Te-Fiti, Pacific Ocean Goddess

Carl Jung was asked, how should modern people relate to ancient myths?  He responded, “The point is to dream the myth onward, and give it a modern dress.”  The Disney empire has been “dreaming the myth onward and giving it a modern dress” for decades, with films like Little Mermaid, Mulan, Aladdin, and recently, Moana, about young heroes and heroines from mythology challenging the mythic forces of evil.

It’s easy to criticize some of Disney’s retelling of these myths. Only in the last couple year have Disney movies like Frozen and Moana finally had some strong female leads whose dream is not rescue by a prince.  But the “modern dress” these young women wear make them look more like models with anorexic bodies than empowered heroes.  Even so, the stories are vivid and Disney can tear at your heartstrings with image and music. 

Todays’ “Ocean Deity” is Te-Fiti, whom I learned about from Disney’s film Moana.  From what I have read she is more important in the film than in traditional Polynesian mythology.  Like so many women of myth she is more symbol than actor, and never speaks.  Here I imagine here what she might say about herself, and her film appearance.

Te-Fiti is my name.  I am the Pacific Ocean goddess and creator of all life.  If the name sounds to you like Tahiti, you are right – it means literally “a faraway place.”  My Polynesians people are good at long journeys to faraway places, we sail from island to island, across the sea.  At the beginning of time I created the vast ocean, and then I made all the islands, these small safe and lush homelands mid the mighty sea.  Sometimes I am depicted as a living island myself, able to mold and shape terrain and flora and fauna.  

I’ve never needed much acclaim or worship.  I can just look around me and see all the life teeming in my islands and my sea and glory in my creation.  But I have to admit it was fun to have a big role in the movie Moana.  I even got a few nice notes about the film from the other mother goddesses I’ve met at Goddess Camp, saying I did a good job.  And could we have Goddess Camp on my island this year?

“Goddess Camp” is the yearly party/retreat/reunion we female creation deities have every spring.  Tiamat and Nammu started it with a fantastic week in the Fertile Crescent.  We’ve danced and sung in the Bering Sea with Sedna, India with Parvati, and who can forget that Aegean spring with Gaia and Demeter? 

Since we all were there at the beginning of time, creating earth or sea, animals, plants, people, we have lots of memories to share, stories to tell.  We dance and eat a lot. 

Recently we’ve added a lamentation time to our gathering, ritual wailing in sorrow and anger at the ways climate change is taking such a toll on our beautiful creations.  It’s good to be together with sisters in the hard times as well as the celebrative.

It’s interesting, actually, how well we get along, sharing both our pride in our work as well as our sorrow at its destruction.  We’ve notice when the male deities get together there’s lots of strutting and competitive games.  The food is better at our sister gatherings as well.

If you haven’t seen the movie, quick plot summary: Moana, an independent thinking Pacific Islander teenager, saves the world from destruction by restoring my heart, which has been stolen by power hungry men seeking to control the earth.  Moana’s grandmother, one of my disciples, tells her the ancient stories of how I created the ocean itself and then all the islands in it.  She helps Moana find my stolen heart, a small shining green amulet, and encourages her to sail beyond the reef into the feared ocean and restore my heart.  With help from the usual Disney bumbling animal sidekicks and the reformed thief demigod, Maui, Moana confronts the evil destructive goddess Te-Pa, source of fire and volcano, who it turns out is me without my heart.  If you take away the heart of any creator, you get destruction.  Bravely Moana restores my heart and the earth and ocean are saved.  

I think my sister creation goddesses are a little jealous of me because of the movie.  Lin-Manuel Miranda hasn’t written a song for the sound track of their lives.  They have reminded me, in a nice way, that I am actually a pretty minor character in Pacific Islander mythology.  The destructive gods as usual get more notoriety, Pele and Maui and Te-Pa.  Myth writers and Disney execs seem to prefer the evil stepmothers, the destructive Ursula and Malificent, to the creative life affirming females. 

Maybe it was a goddess #MeToo movement that helped Disney realize they needed not only a heroine whose triumph was saving the world, not being saved by a prince, but also a triumphant positive female force for creation, not destruction.  Whatever, I’ll take it, if it gets my sisters to come party at my house.

And to lament.  Demeter said she wanted to come to the South Seas to weep and ululate as women mourners do in Greece at a death, in this case, the death of so many islands to sea level rise and climate change.  It does feel like my heart has been ripped out and that the evil gods and goddesses of greed and conspicuous consumption are triumphing over our band of sisters.

The party is this week, at the equinox, when spring begins in the north, and ironically, autumn arrives in my part of the world.  Will we emerge whole from this winter?  Can we sisters of creation rise again with new life?

Copyright © 2018 Deborah Streeter

Wednesday
Mar142018

Secrets I Have

Last week on Monday I announced on these pages that I would write weekly for a while about ocean deities. I began with the Inuit sea goddess Sedna. On Friday an ancient Aegean sea goddess came up and spoke to me, from her glass case at the Legion of Honor Art Museum in San Francisco.  She said, “Write about me this week, let me speak.”  She also encouraged me to read a poem that fifth grader Addison Bell had written about her as part of the “Poets in the Galleries” program at the SF Fine Arts Museums.  I’ll begin with what she told Addison, that she was simple, alone, tired, ready and full of secrets.

Simple.

Simple am I.
My burnt sienna skin
is sad and cracked
Alone.  Alone I feel
No emotions, no love
I lean one way
I lean the other.
Tired. Tired I feel
Tired of standing
In the clear glass cage.
Haven’t laid down
Since they put me in here.
Ready. Ready to raid this place.
They were the ones who did it.
Secrets. Secrets I have
Secrets I cannot tell this modern world.

Addison Ball, 5th Grade, Mill Valley
_______

When you’re 4500 years old, I guess it’s understandable that no one remembers your name.

But still - “Cycladic Figure”?   Surely they could do better than that.  The names of so many of us ancient women are lost or forgotten.  “Daughter of…,”  “Wife of….,” “Mother of….” is the only way we are identified.

You “moderns,” as the poet Addison describes you, archeologists, and grave robbers, have found thousands of these simple, geometric, almost modern looking (you say) marble figures.  Most of them are female, left in tombs on one of the Cyclades, the 200 small Aegean islands in a circle (cycle) around the holy isle of Delos.

Made of precious marble, they are small enough to be grasped by worshipper or corpse, as well as by travelers, it seems, since the figures have also been found as far away as Egypt.

These figures depict me, but I am a force mightier than any stone grave object.  I am holy female, the great mother.  Yes, there are a few Cycladic male figurines also, with a cute little penis between their legs.  But most of us are female, and my simple triangle tells you who I am. 

I look small, the one Addison saw in San Francisco is only five inches tall.  My people were sailors and farmers and shepherds, travelers, so they wanted a reminder of me they could hold in one hand.  But even though my people lived on small islands, they were surrounded by an infinite ocean, and they knew I am as large as the waves, as deep as the sea.

I don’t think I will tell you my name.  Addison heard me say, “Secret.  Secrets I have, secrets I cannot tell this modern world.”  You moderns want to know everything, explain, categorize.  But my face is bare to show I am not just one female, not even just one god, one name.  I am nameless and all names.

Later the Olympian gods of mainland Greece seized the people’s imagination and became more specialized, more individualized, more modern.  We Cycladic gods and our people lost power, but we did not disappear.  I live on especially in my descendants Artemis and Aphrodite.  Artemis (and her brother Apollo) were born on Delos and always loved the islands and the sea, running free in nature.  Aphrodite was born even earlier, on another island, Cyprus, and you have seen pictures of her, and her Roman equivalent Venus, born from the sea, rising from the waves, on a clam shell.  Poor Aphrodite, she still embodies my powerful creative sexual force, but those patriarchal Greeks trivialized and fantasized about her as only seductive and self-centered.   But she began, like me, as so much more, all female energy, all birth and death and sea and land and fertility and abundance.

Arms crossed, always I stand that way.  Well, my figures do, so my arms won’t break off.  When I sailed and swam and blessed and birthed and travelled with my people beyond the grave, my strong arms and legs were always in motion, I pushed, pulled, planted, embraced, saved.  Female creative energy doesn’t just stand there.  Addison heard my cry that I want to move.

You moderns always want to know what we were the gods and goddesses OF.  What was our specialty, our portfolio?  Well, I am an island deity and an ocean deity, I comfort women in birth and all people in death, I travel with sailors on scary seas and accompany shepherds on lonely hillsides.  I promise new life when winter seems endless and embody the abundance of spring.  I am mother, great and powerful.

That’s all I’ll tell you.  The rest is my secret.

Copyright © 2018 Deborah Streeter

Tuesday
Mar062018

Ocean Deities

I’m starting a new series about ocean deities from various world traditions. Today I begin with Sedna, Inuit ocean deity.   My usual writing style is to research, describe and explain (as I am doing right now.)  In this series I intend instead to imagine the deities speaking for themselves.  I will try to be accurate and respectful of different cultures, but I am not an expert in anthropology or mythology.   I am intrigued with how prescientific people create stories to understand the mysteries of the deep.  Often it’s an ocean goddess.   Why female?  These myths say more about human nature than about the ocean.  We still personify and anthropomorphize the sea and its creatures. Let’s see who might be ruling the deep.

From fineartamericacom Sedna is a painting by Antony Galbraith which was uploaded on April 11th, 2015I am Sedna, goddess of the deepest ocean for my people the Inuit, people of the north who live and die by the sea, my realm, my home.

The Inuit tell many different stories about me, how I came to live here in the cold dark depths.  Some stories say I was a beautiful human woman who was strong willed, and refused all suitors. So my angry father threw me into the sea.  When I clung to the kayak, he chopped off my fingers, one by one, and that’s how seals and walrus and whales were birthed.

Other stories say my father forced me to marry a mysterious suitor who turned out to be a bird, some say Raven himself, who then imprisoned me, and when my father came to rescue me, Raven was so mad he churned up the sea into a horrible torrent.  Only by chopping off the fingers of my clinging hands did my father survive, while I fell to the depths.

When the ocean is rough and the Inuits can’t hunt, their shamans try to appease me.  Sometimes the shamans are said to comb my long hair, which I can’t do it myself because I have no fingers, and from my hair are released marine mammals they can hunt. 

There are many other story variations, but they all seem to have me unwilling to marry, while my father or husband angrily trying to control me.  And the amputated fingers. 

In some stories I have a husband in the deep, but mostly I am alone with the sea creatures.  My powerful emotions and moods churn the sea.   Often I am depicted as half human, half seal or porpoise.   I have become a denizen of the deep.

They tell these stories to explain the changeable sea and the origins of the animals they hunt, which have warm blood but live in the cold sea. 

But I would tell my own story differently.

I live here because I can do what I want, no father or Raven or hunters can tell me what to do.  I chose to live here, but I wanted companions, so I chose to give parts of my vast body to create new life, new animals. I am a powerful swimmer and the ocean is huge.  The sea animals are my children, my friends and companions. We deep ones need lots of room to move around, and when we do, the ocean moves.  We like it that way.  

I am not angry at the people on land.  They have their home, I have mine.  We all have to eat and I understand their hunting the sea animals for their taste and strength.  I will help the animals hide and fight back when the hunters take too much, but we can all live together. 

They tell stories about how I am a big woman, and angry, but that’s just because they like their women to be small and docile.  Yes, the animals like my hair, but that’s because they like me, and my hair anchors them in the waves.  It feels great to have seals and sea lions playing in your hair.  And yes, I am large.  Skinny animals don’t last long in the sea. 

Don’t tell the Inuits, but sometimes I swim south to get warm and lie on the beach.  Goddesses need vacations.  My whales and dolphins manage things fine without me. 

But things are changing up here in the north, less ice, more oil rigs, fewer animals.  Now, these changes actually are making me angry, and it does seem to be mostly men on those big ships and rigs.  They may not have heard the Inuit tales, and I doubt they have shamans who can try to appease me.  They will feel the wrath of the sea.

Copyright © 2018 Deborah Streeter

Wednesday
Feb212018

Gathering of the Waters

In this column on “Ocean People” I’ve been writing about the various people I’ve met while serving as a Member at Large on the Advisory Council of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.  I’ve described the fishermen, harbormasters, environmentalists, divers, surfers, researchers, historians and business leaders who meet every other month to advise the Sanctuary Superintendent on protecting this 300 mile stretch of coastline and ocean.

I’ve written about my ambivalence about revealing to my fellow council members that I am not just an ocean advocate, but a Protestant minister.  But this week I tell the story of how I put both sets of skills to work by creating a worship service to help celebrate the Marine Sanctuary’s 10th anniversary, and how I invited all the cool religious “ocean people” I knew. 

One look at this photo tells you I’ve been doing an ocean ministry called Blue Theology for a long time – this was 2002! 

The occasion was a big Ocean Fair to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the designation by the federal government of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.  I was serving on the Advisory Council for the Sanctuary at the time and I offered to gather interfaith religious leaders and lead a “Blessing of the Sanctuary” as part of the celebrations. I assured the federal NOAA staff that I was a firm believer in the separation of church and state, but if they wanted some kind of ritual alongside all the speeches I’d be glad to put it together.  Happily, they welcomed the idea, and later featured this photo in the news reports – we do look good!

My dear friend, Catholic priest Scott, (center) brought a conch shell and sage to burn in an abalone and some sweet acolytes.  John the Native American Ohlone leader brought his sacred staff.    I brought two of my blue blessing bowls that I’ve used in many water rituals.  Everyone brought readings about water from their sacred texts.

Representatives from many of the 15 National Marine Sanctuaries were in attendance for the anniversary, from sanctuaries in the Atlantic, Pacific, Great Lakes.  I asked them, and others I knew who were coming, to bring a small vial of water with them from their home tap, creek, river, lake, or ocean.  40 or so folks came up onto the stage, kids, federal employees, solemnly said where their water was from and poured it into one of the common bowls.  I held them up and said a prayer of thanksgiving blessing on the water. 

Then we processed, clergy and acolytes and kids and workers, with the bowls held aloft, through Monterey’s historic park, past the old Customs House, down to this little beach by the wharf.  I invited the religious leaders to read from their traditions about waters.  I can vividly remember Robert the Buddhist priest reading from Dogen’s “Mountains and Rivers Sutra.”  Then I poured the gathered water from the blue bowls slowly back into the bay, the sanctuary, the holy place.

From many places far and wide, the drops came together as one, and then we returned the gift, all back to its source, mother ocean.

My friend Nashwan, far right, brought water from the farthest away – Mecca, most sacred place of his Moslem faith.   This was just a year after 9/11, and Nashwan, a local architect, had visited many of our churches in that year, patiently explaining Islam and its wide landscape.  When I left the little beach after the service I looked back down and there were Nashwan and Ann, the president of the synagogue, deep in conversation.  Gathered together by the one water?

I first wrote this piece in 2016 for my other weekly column, “Blue Theology Tide-ings.” That July 2016 I was about to be formally installed by my denomination as a Community Minister for Blue Theology, a minister for and about the ocean.

We began the 2016 installation service with another Gathering of the Waters.  Again I had invited folks to bring water from their home or special place.  We used the same blue bowls.  Again the water built the community.  We remembered again that all water is one, a cycle of blessing and bounty.  The ministry I had already been doing for 15 years entered a new phase, a new stream, a new current, a new wave.  We were gathered by the waters.

Copyright © 2018 Deborah Streeter