I am frequently visited by Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory. She sparks a remembrance so deep in the collective psyche that only what Socrates calls anamnesis or the practice of pratyabhijna (re-collecting gnosis, Sanskrit) can resurrect it. In Hades, the dead drank from the river Lethe to forget this life. If you followed the Orphic/Pythagorean mysteries, you would drink from Mnemosyne, also the mother of the Nine Muses, to remember the pieces of the Self. Thus, begins a remembrance of things recently passed, of a journey to the British Isles where the mists of Avalon lift momentarily to let us peek into HER mystery.
Mnemosyne was one of those goddesses who had to be “forgotten” to establish the Olympian patriarchy. This worldwide forgetting of the source of our being has serious and terrifying consequences. But one can’t quite forget a Titan because she sings within us, sometimes as vague unease; sometimes she charts a delightful path leading to pre-historic stones whose memory cannot be eradicated. While the beleaguered Great Britain was changing guards to assert its lost supremacy and Brexiting, she was helping erstwhile colonial subjects discover its treasures for their own creative usage.
The British Museum is brimming with imperial loot. Sacred objects like this undulating, double headed turquoise Aztec serpent represent an inner truth -"the way upward and the way downward is one and the same." This fragment from Heraclitus is one of the epigraphs that begins T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton.” The first poem of the Four Quartets that Eliot, an American who embraced Britannia, chanted to redeem himself. His deep memory revealed the mystery of the eternal spiraling of time within the circular womb: “Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future, /And time future contained in time past.”
Our journey was serpentine, serendipitous and spiraled through the magic isles. Tower of St. Mary Magdalene welcomed us to Canterbury and brought me to the pilgrimage point I read in Chaucer during my college English days. The Church was demolished in 1871 and a baroque monument from 1680 was established there. Miriam of Magdala has remained until very recently the most misrepresented Lady of Christianity since the saga of Jesus was truncated by patriarchal Christendom. Yet the land retains her memory in more ways than one can imagine. I was pleased that it was her tower/tor that launched our pilgrimage, a journey mainly conceived by my husband, an avid lover of history and Arthurian tales.
Canterbury Cathedral was the first sacred site on the way to a philosophy conference in Bath - my excuse for the voyage. I recalled Chaucer’s “Wyf of Bathe,” a scandalously sharp woman with at least five husbands who tells the tale of “what women truly want” on her way to Canterbury. Through the tale of a rapist, an Arthurian Knight no less, whom Queen Guinevere saves from execution and sends on a different kind of quest, Chaucer shows how women desire sovereignty over their bodies. It was set in the backdrop of a recently buried Avalonia under patriarchal Christianity that reveals medieval England’s unease with independent women.
Hence it was fitting that we stopped at Glastonbury on our way to Bath and paid tribute to the mystery of Magdalene’s Chalice and the Tor, the legendary entrance to Avalon. History, mythology, religion and our interior landscape, marked by sacred symbols of the people who inhabited this land, effortlessly intermingle here. The Chalice Garden below the Tor and Glastonbury Abbey are magical places where the ancient tale of the Holy Grail blended with the new religion. Joseph of Arimathea is supposed to have traveled here from Jerusalem with the famed vessel.
Glastonbury Abbey also allegedly contains the tomb of Arthur and his unforgettable Queen. It houses the most ancient ruins of a Lady Chapel. A dove at a ledge near the Virgin’s altar sat still as if rapt in meditation like Wordsworth’s nun. William, a singer of Lyrical Ballads and lover of Nature’s mysteries once sang: “With an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things.” He, like his fellow poets of the land, must have been intoxicated with the waters of Mnemosyne.
This Abbey reveals how many women like Jean Shinoda Bolen, and some men, unknowingly “Cross into Avalon”, the gateway to the land of the dead that the Tor signifies, and remember their birthright. That birthright awakens them to their full humanity and creates a seamless entry into the Kingdom with no rancor between Nature, divinity and humanity. While truth remains elusive, our mythic imagination creates enchanting tales that speak to the wellspring of our being - the Mother Principle that gives birth to and balances the masculine and the feminine within us.
Given the imbalance in the world and the loss of the feminine, it was fun to discover the balancing Star of David, two intersecting triangles, an entangled Yin/Yang symbol from the Jewish world, hiding in plain sight in Winchester Cathedral. The Rosslyn Chapel that we visited later hid many pagan symbols in its Lady Chapel including the Green Man but discovering the star as an anomalous design at this most ornate cathedral, the seat of medieval Britain’s royal power was delightful and auspicious. See if you can locate it!
We entered the World Heritage Site, the city of Bath on the wings of philo-Sophia and were enchanted by the Celtic and Roman goddesses that often disguised themselves in various forms. Seneca wrote in the first century: “We…. erect altars at places where great streams burst suddenly from hidden sources; we honor hot springs of water as divine.” We need such wisdom today so we can see how we pollute our own being as we desecrate the waters of life. The temple pediment in Bath sites these lines from Solinus in 3rd century CE: “….in her temple the eternal flames never whiten into ash, but rather, when the fire dies away, it turns into rocky round masses.” Was the writer referring to the rocky round barrows we saw all over the place?
Taking a sip from the holy waters of the spring must have awakened Mnemosyne in me and reminded me of Goddess Kamakhya in the hills of Assam. Kamakhya inspired me to write my first book: In the Beginning IS Desire. The waters of the sacred hot spring at Bath were meant for pilgrims to cleanse and heal themselves before paying homage to the Celtic and Roman goddess Sulis Minerva. A painter sought to give vision to Cignus the Swan which is the sacred constellation of the Celtic goddess Brigid, and a Catholic saint. After all goddesses do not care about religious identity; they simply point the way to the still center of our spiraling mind.
Geometric circles, spirals, tors and triangles- markers of goddess religions, are much older than Greeks, Romans or Avalonians. If one end of our sojourn had the fragrance of the two Marys, the Virgin and the Magdalene, and the complex aroma of Morgan Le Fay, the other end was imbued with the grandeur of grassy barrows, stone circles and the most magnificent natural monuments from Dover’s white cliffs to the Isle of Skye’s Old Man of Storr. Deep memory triggered by Mnemosyne’s blessings and the texture of the land led my imaginal mind to a past when humans knew that the Sun and the Moon are not just external entities but intricately connected with human evolution.
We showed up at a newly curated Stonehenge surrounded by an empty landscape and ancient mounds. We passed through Old Sarum and Salisbury. All over the place Ravens were singing of the void at the center of this famous sanctuary. They were pointing to Amesbury and innumerable others all the way to the Scottish Highlands. We ended up seeing the 12 apostles in Dumfries, Callanish stones in the Outer Hebrides in the Isle of Lewis and many others before reaching the summit of our stony trip in Orkney. One takes hazardous single lane roads through the breathtaking Scottish Highlands and Lochs to encircle the sacred stones that dot the land.
The Mists of Avalon take a completely different tenor as one enters the dangerous waters that separate the Orkneys. From the ship one can see the Old Man of Hoy rising out of a misty rocky landscape. Then we were in the heart of Neolithic Orkney with Skara Brae, Europe’s best-preserved Neolithic village, the Standing Stones of Stenness, the massive Ring of Brodgar and the over 5000-year-old chambered cairn of Maeshowe. The cairn was visited a thousand years ago by Vikings who left their runic graffiti for us to inspect. Maeshowe is aligned with the standing stones and the winter solstice. It could very well be the cave of Merlin, the master magician of Avalon and restorer of the Giant’s Dance.
A circular journey around the British Isles also bared the depths of its ecclesiastical history. Its chronicler Venerable Bede’s 7th century Saxon monastery is still standing; so is the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. However, the dissolution of monasteries carried out by King Henry VIII had a peculiar effect on the land. We found the ruined abbeys, including Fountains and Whitby, more beautiful in their stark emptiness than the sumptuous cathedrals that were saved by various alliances. However, the ruins of Lanercost priory next to a parish church of Mary Magdalene reminded that Magdalene is awake in the land.
Journeys require guides and sometimes they show up in strange guise, a boatman or a charioteer. One of the hidden gems we were led to was a hermitage behind Warkworth Castle. To reach it you had to cross the river Coquet with the help of a ferryman. The chapel was carved out of the cliff rock and some stones were shaped to make a recumbent Virgin with child. A serene and resolute Joseph was standing guard at the foot of the rocky bed. Like the ruined abbeys this hermitage spoke the language of silence, and here lies a sort of the Virgin of the Rocks.
Goddess rituals, ancient and contemporary, include circle dances, labyrinthine trances and incubation inside darkened cave shrines. As we descended from the top of our journey in Orkney, I suddenly found myself joining a circle dance they call Taizo in Findhorn and recognized how traditions remain alive in many forms. It must be the Great Goddess spinning her magic sitting at her loom. When I asked my unknown partner her name, she said Kali; did I hear it wrong? I asked again; she uttered the same sound. My Kali saturated ear probably misheard the European name - Kallie or Callie!
British philosopher Peter Kingsley has been writing about incubation rituals in goddess temples that Greek philosophers from Empedocles to Parmenides participated; Plato too was linked to Eleusinian mysteries. Sleeping in a dark cave could lead to cleansing dreams of dying to one’s ordinary life. Entering and exiting a sacred circle or a spiraling labyrinth is a way to enter the depth of one’s being and encounter death and resurrection. Resting inside a grave like structure next to the magnificent ruins of Whitby Abbey reminded me of the cremation ground meditation that the Buddha taught.
I somehow come full circle to the Buddha who lived at a time when the Greeks still worshipped their goddesses. It was a magnificent day and the landscape was changing from pasture lands to deep forests. We passed through a pre-historic site and reached the Kagyu Samye Ling monastery built by Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche in the heart of Scotland. A magnificent Tara and the murti of the second Buddha Padmasambhava filled the landscape with color. The river Esk was flowing behind the monastery and a soft grassy spiral adorned a corner of its garden.
Tibetan prayer flags and wheels felt out of place; so did the statue of Mahayana philosopher and for some, a tantric master, Nagarjuna wrapped in a spiraling stony serpent whose cobra head was protecting his meditating body. I momentarily sat in the shrine and encircled the monastery wondering about stranger gods comfortably inhabiting this ancient land of stone circles and mystic magicians. As I conclude this reverie about our sojourn on this magnificent island, contemplate the vagaries of history and my strange affinity with these isles, I watch my Muse, Mnemosyne, dissolve into the reflecting pool that mirrors the mind of a master along with a blue sky and its fleeting clouds.