Where are women supposed to go to become goddesses?
I stared at the brochure; it was filled with photos of blocky pyramids, angry-looking creatures carved into stone, and an archaeological site plan featuring the names, Avenue of the Dead, House of the Jaguars, and Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent. Scanning down to the bottom, a final sentence caught my eye, burning a hole in my psyche:
Teotihuacán – the place where men become gods.
A familiar anger stewed in my midsection, spiraling out into my extremities. “Screw that.” I took in a breath and let it out slowly, then said to no one in particular;
“Where are women supposed to go to become goddesses?”
The trip to Mexico was my sisters’ idea: they thought a spiritual retreat with a group of women to visit the ancient site of Teotihuacán might be good for me. They had good reason. Three years before, while traveling together in Greece, I had become overwhelmed by panic on a day trip to Delphi. Was it the strong coffee I had drunk the night before, my sister, Deb, had wondered? When the bus stopped at a roadside café, she had gotten me some water and I gripped the bottle, the normalcy of the chatting passengers making me feel even more lost.
Later on, as we walked in the shadow of the Temple of Athena, my sister Gael had a more metaphysical explanation. “Some places on earth have a powerful effect on people,” she said. “This seems like it’s yours.”
We sat for a long time on a crumbling ancient wall, occasionally waving away sweat bees as she rubbed my back. Listening to goat bells float up from the valley, I watched the sun move overhead, scraping the sky like a dirty orange. Eventually the panic abated, but a part of me had become dislodged…again. This was not my first time at the rodeo. I had lived in Athens as a college student, and had a sort of breakdown there. I went on to graduate school in Greek archaeology and had returned, many times, to work on excavations. On some level I must have intuited that digging in this ancient soil might help me connect with what troubled my soul.
The next day would be our last in Athens. We wandered around the flea market, dodging disease-ridden cats and t-shirt vendors cooing “hey baby” from darkened alleys. Clutching a bagful of hammered tin icons, I had just stepped out of a religious artifacts store when I saw Gael approaching.
She pulled me away from the crowds where I could hear her better; a river of sunburned shoulders and backpacks flowed by, and the acid sunlight seared the top of my head. “I’ve figured out what your problem is,” I recall her saying, her words piercing my consciousness like a monastery bell.
“You’re disconnected from your feminine.”
Circles of sweat form under my arms. The Mexico City airport is hot; I look around and see Gael, her thick blond hair appearing behind passport control. She is wearing a bold blue shirt and gold and silver chains hang like ropes around her neck. Then Deb arrives to a flurry of smiles, hugs and kisses. The group grows larger, spilling into baggage claim, and eventually we file out, a serpentine line of totes and roller bags, to the bus. My sisters find friends to sit with and I slide into a seat next to a woman with platinum braids and blood red lips; estrogen seems to shoot out of her like exhaust from a rocket launch.
“Sedona’s home for now,” she says, snapping her gum and sinking back into the garish tangerine and fuchsia colored seat.
She owns a new age shop and sells crystals for a living. She deals in Tarot, horoscopes. Ley lines and power vortices. I listen and gaze out the window past her cotton candy hair and a chest that heaves up and down while she speaks, her red knit shirt buckling into her cleavage. I run out of stuff to ask her and after a few, muted ‘uh-huhs’ I pretend to doze off. We are passing ugly underpasses and barrio-like neighborhoods. I thought I’d see a pristine Mexican countryside and I’m disappointed by the corrugated metal roofs, the scattered trash, the mangy, sore-covered dogs.
After miles of dusty road the bus pulls into the hotel compound. It is unexpectedly immaculate and beautiful, knocking me off balance. The retreat promises a connection to one’s spiritual self, but I wonder how I’m supposed to ignore the fact that we’re surrounded by poverty and, considering the fortress-like wall around the hotel, danger.
Morning comes, and our group assembles after breakfast. Through the beaded window shades I can see a pyramid in the distance. It doesn’t shock me with its sheer magnitude; in fact, it disappoints at first. I am expecting the towering height and awe-inspiring reaction that accompanied my first glance of the pyramid of Cheops. The moment I caught sight of it from the back seat of an Egyptian taxi I had let out a cry; a mountain of stone fabricated by human hands filled the windshield, its sheer monstrosity framed by photos of President Mubarak and strands of beads that hung from the rear view mirror, swinging silently back and forth, caressing the pile of two ton blocks like an old woman’s broom.
As we grow closer, I see Teo’s pyramids, a colossal triad of stone sumo wrestlers, squatting heavily on the dusty Mexican earth. We arrive at the gate, pay our entrance fee and clot around the guides like sheep. “Today we will climb the temple of the Feathered Serpent,” the blond guide, Gloria, intones.
The steps are wide and steep. Grasping the guardrails, I hoist myself up. A stiff breeze blows off my straw hat and I catch it before it tumbles to its death, bouncing off the black, forbidding stones. Gloria is speaking, her hands raised in benediction, “Close your eyes and just listen for a moment. Listen to the voice in the wind.”
I watch the group. Standing in a huddle, they do as they are told. I wander off to the side and look over the edge. I decide to close my eyes as well and see what happens. The wind picks up, then dies down, then picks up again. It swirls up the stone stairs and around my legs, caressing my ankles before it glides over the top of the pyramid.
Listen to the voice in the wind.
I lurch forward, bracketing my arms on my thighs, and watch as my tears form a pool in the ancient dust.
The next day we walk to the site in silence.
“Clasp your hands behind your back, focus on the ground in front of you and walk at a slow pace,” Gloria says. “It’s called the Walk of Power.”
Today’s destination is the Place of the Women, a low structure with murals on the walls covered by a cracked and yellowed corrugated ceiling to protect the archaeological remains. We are instructed to lie on the floor and the leaders begin the session. “Relax….imagine you are floating….weightless. Visualize a white light,” they chant. “This is the house where women dream.”
I lie on my back, aware of women’s bodies all around me. Something about this feels stilted. I imagine what another tourist would think, coming upon our group and seeing us, scattered across the floor, like Jonestown after the massacre.
I let myself slip into a state of semi-consciousness, aware of women breathing near me – we are lying so close our shoulders are touching. After a while, I notice that I’m not really hearing Gloria’s voice any more. I feel my consciousness floating upwards, hovering in the room, just above all the bodies. A sense of peace envelops me.
Suddenly I hear someone coming near. I am lifted by both my arms and ushered from the room. The other women don’t notice or budge, continuing to lie undisturbed on the floor. Unsure if I’m asleep or awake, I’m barely aware of being escorted to another part of the building, behind a yellow construction tape.
I am seated on a stone wall between two other women and one of the group’s leaders, Rita, faces me. She is doing something with her hands, as if sensing an invisible shield around my body. I hear a buzzing in my ears.
Rita starts asking me about my mother, who’d passed away several years before. I try to answer her questions when I feel an enormous grief wash over me. I lurch forward, bracketing my arms on my thighs, and watch as my tears form a pool in the ancient dust.
As my sobbing subsides, one of the women hands me two halves of a fossilized rock. She asks me to choose. One is shaped like a womb, with a small crystal inclusion. I reach out and my hand closes around the pink stone. She tells me that whenever I look at this in the future I will remember this moment. For healing, she says. All at once I am ushered back out into the sun. The other women are filtering out of the building, chatting quietly with one another, but I stay to myself, overwhelmed by a desire to be alone. I don’t know what just happened.
And even if I did, I wouldn’t know how to explain it to the others.
The iPhone’s ear buds are jammed into my skull and U2’s Mysterious Ways is mainlining into my consciousness. I walk along the main avenue, the Pyramid of the Moon looming in my sights. The muscular rhythm undulates into my ear canal and something in me dislocates; I feel arrested in time. My reverie is interrupted by Gael, who suddenly appears and grabs my arm; she wants me to join the group, which has gathered at the base of the pyramid. Some women are prostrate, with their heads in each other’s laps, some lean back to back.
A frisson of energy crackles through the crowd, and I’m wondering if maybe there is something to the vibe of this place after all. “The Pyramid of the Moon was built to connect us to our feminine energy,” Rita and Gloria had lectured to us earlier in the day. I settle onto the hard stone plaza and sink back, my shoulder blades making contact with a woman behind me. The group is quiet for a while, but I sense a building tension, a heaviness in the atmosphere that seems to squeeze us psychologically. Suddenly the air shatters as one of the women calls out – a bloody, rebel yell. The sound, ancient and defiant, ricochets across the mall, and other voices join it as the rest of the group engages in a primal scream session that plays out in a rapid-fire succession of shrieks and roars.
I am too embarrassed to join in. Yet listening to woman after woman call out at the top of her lungs is prodding away at something deeply buried inside of me; after a few minutes I finally get up the courage and let it rip. It’s a throat-searing vomit of long repressed energy, but the women have just finished their group-shout and mine comes half a beat too late. It lingers, echoing painfully by itself, for what seems like an eternity. Everyone laughs as my voice disintegrates into the silver air.
Suddenly the air shatters as one of the women calls out – a bloody, rebel yell.
The idea of feminine energy has always struck me as something soft and gentle, but this is tectonic, revolutionary…cataclysmic.
We’re visiting a local artist’s studio, where a special dinner is being held on our last evening. The women are milling around outside an adobe building, drinking margaritas in plastic cups. Everyone has dressed up; I watch as a forest of turquoise scarves and animal prints moves through the perfume-clotted air. I grab a cup and take a sip, my lips puckering at the sour concoction.
The group filters into the dining hall of a ramada style building. Wooden posts bracket the ceiling and a desiccated breeze folds in through a window. A large mural dominates one wall of the room, an image of the Virgin Mary adorned in a sky-blue gown. She is surrounded by an aura that emanates from her in undulating, egg yolk and pomegranate-colored waves. Floating just beneath her is a cherubic head, a child with a mop of messy brown hair.
I’m staring at it when I sense Rita at my side.
“Our Lady of Guadalupe,” she says.
“This was painted by Cynthia,” she goes on, pointing to a blond woman across the room, ladling tamales out of a cast iron pot. “She’s been working on it for months.” She gestures to the red-tipped, amber rays that surround the Virgin. “Isn’t it stunning?”
She gazes at the painting for a moment, then turns and looks at me.
“Do you know the symbolism behind this image?” she asks. Her eyes are dark pebbles; the kind crows pick up in their beaks and drop into a deep pool.
I stare at it. Even though it’s beautiful, it’s not unlike most images of the Virgin Mary I’ve seen since childhood. Having been raised Catholic, I’ve been steeped in symbolism: so many halos, so many mutilated saints, so many downcast, dejected faces of Jesus.
“This is not just an image of Mary,” she says, holding out her arms in supplication. “It’s an image of the divine feminine.” She pauses. “Does it remind you of anything?”
“Isn’t that the same thing? Mary is the divine feminine, isn’t she?” I ask.
“The Virgin Mary is one of the most well-known examples of the divine feminine. But she is by no means the only one,” she replies. “This is an image of the divine feminine in its most elemental form.” She gestures to the almond shaped nimbus around the Virgin.
“You’re sure the image doesn’t remind you of anything?”
I lean in more closely. I don’t know what she means. The beatific face, the compassionate gesture of the arms.
“Look at the aura!” Rita interrupts my reverie. “It’s red, elliptical…it’s the portal to the female. Can’t you see?” She takes in a breath.
“It’s a vulva!”
A tremor passes through my system: even for a fallen Catholic, I am shocked. I thought it was no longer possible to feel blasphemy, but suddenly, here I am, feeling blasphemed.
Many years before, I had left the Church. After endless Sundays sitting in a pew next to my mother and siblings, I had admitted my original sin more times than I could count. One Sunday when I was fifteen, I’d had a gestalt. Father had come to the part of the Mass where we were to pound our chests and recite over and over again:
Lord I am not worthy to receive you. Mea Culpa. Mea Culpa. Mea Maxima Culpa.
All of a sudden it came to me: Who said? What kind of religion tells us over and over again that we are not worthy?
As I stand in front of the mural, I’m having another one of those moments. Even though my falling out with the Church happened long ago, its imagery is ingrained into my psyche. I am having trouble seeing that an image that I always deemed as sacrosanct is actually masking a symbolism of the female genitalia.
In the past few days, I’ve heard stories about a cave located beneath Teo. Women who go into it report spontaneous menstrual bleeding, our guides tell us, adding cryptically, caves are the wombs of the world. The archaeologist part of me – the scientist – dismisses this stuff as hoo-hah. Metaphysical bullshit. But another part wonders if it’s true.
I want to believe Gael – I want to think my panic and anxiety might be due to being disconnected from my feminine. As I stare at the image, I realize a new hole is being burned into my consciousness. Yet this version of the Virgin isn’t easy to accept; it’s overshadowed by a childhood surrounded by statues of the long-suffering Mary. Eighteen years of Sundays spent on a hard wooden bench with all that chest beating, all those mea culpas, still have a greedy grip on my psyche, and tell me that female genitals and the Catholic Church don’t mix.
I take another look at the mural. For a moment the red tipped aura does resemble a vulva, and the surrounding striated rays, a vaginal wall. But no matter how hard I try to maintain that vision, something in me prevents it from lasting. All too soon my eyes refocus and adjust to seeing what I am accustomed to: the sapphire cloaked Virgin with her disconsolate eyes, surrounded by golden beams.
The idea of feminine energy has always struck me as something soft and gentle, but this is tectonic, revolutionary…cataclysmic. After centuries of being cast aside, damned, and silenced, maybe the only way to manifest itself is by creeping up from underneath and thrusting its way into our churches, our politics – our collective consciousness.
I’ve dug up a lot of artifacts in Greece. Yet, catching glimpses of the divine feminine, concealed underground or in images, I realize now that’s what the Greek stones were trying to tell me at Delphi: this is a deeper, more powerful treasure to unearth. Perhaps I was sensing the oracles, poised on their tripods and sequestered in caves, foretelling the future. And now I’m confronted with this image, beneath which a deeper sense of the divine feminine percolates. I don’t know if I feel any more connected to my feminine now. But I will never look at an image of the Virgin Mary quite the same way again.
I take a bite of the tamale. It is sweet; I brush away pink crumbs that fall onto my shirt. Another pull off my margarita and I feel a sense of courage wash over me. Stepping out into the late afternoon light, I inhale the jasmine-clotted air and listen to women’s voices rise and evaporate into a bruised, aubergine sky. For a long moment I just stand there, feeling the warmth of the setting sun on my face. Then I join the crowd.
Entry Photo by Wneuheisel, Teotihuacan Mural