In one of her most beautiful essays (Da Circe a Morgana, 1942), Momolina Marconi[i], Professor of History of Religions at the University of Milan for many years, discusses the Mediterranean goddesses who lived in the long period before the arrival of the warlike, patriarchal cultures who developed urban cultures.
Everlasting is the fascination proceeding from the divine feminine beings, wonderfully skilled in magic and medicine art, the only ones who know the virtues of certain herbs, of certain flowers they arrange in potions and beverages, giving death and life, disease and health in the vast reign of Nature… If we go back in time with our survey, we always find a goddess, Circe, Pasiphae, Medea, Hecate, Agamede or Mestra, who well knows the secret properties of the plants.
This is true because speaking of pharmaka, we enter the field of the great Mediterranean potnia who ‘feeds all the beings on the earth, those who live on the divine earth, in the sea, in the air’. She also rules the vegetable world made up of an endless range of colours and smells, stalks and corollas, buds and blooms, thousands of infinitesimal lives forming the secret treasure of the great goddess, ‘who knows as many medicines as the wide earth can produce’.
Classical poets used to depict absolutely beautiful pictures of these divine experts in magical and healthy arts just as the Mediterranean poets had seen and adored them in their worshipping, initially performed in the open air on the green top of a hill, in the shining clearings of a wood, in the murky shores of a lake, in the calm bend of a river where the water flows more quietly…..The most famous of them is perhaps Circe, the magician with beautiful braids who lives lonely in a shining palace rising up like an architectural miracle in the middle of the luxuriant green area of Aeaea.
This topic is also found in another essay written by M. Marconi, Gli asfodeli alle soglie dell’Ade (1985):
Trees then in the backstage. But somewhere else trees strengthened by sacredness: like the poplar forest surrounded by a meadow with a spring dedicated to Athena by the palace of Alcinous where Ulysses stops to pray; it is a beautiful example of open-air cult of the goddess as phytia, ‘creator’, which has been kept even when the olive tree was considered one of her gifts to mankind…Similarly Demeter, the goddess of grain, cared about a holy wood, which according to Callimachus was also an orchard, where once, in order to protect one of her poplars, the goddess did not hesitate to punish Erysichton’s obstinate violence….It is not surprising that, even at the threshold of Hades, a wood and a meadow of asphodels were dedicated to Persephone as this goddess experienced her great metamorphosis just on a blooming meadow: ‘whereon they reached the meadow of Asphodel, where dwell the souls and shadows of them that can labour no more’.
Let’s stop for a while to observe the worship place: it is located at the mouth of the Sele which flows between two black hedges of trees as old as time; it is the last dying memory of the large forests which once used to cover its banks and where flocks of birds still come and stop in spring and in fall while migrating towards the North or the hot regions of Africa. The forest and the waters are considered here two typical elements of a very ancient Mediterranean cult” of Hera and many other similar divine figures, first and foremost Leto/Latona, a goddess of Aegean-Anatolian origin. “Being in the Lycean and Ephesian land, she is pleased to be in the forests and near the waters, two essential and inseparable elements to her life of potnia phyton (lady of the plants) and at the same time potnia orniton (lady of the birds).
M. Marconi notes that, as in the cult of Leto, in the cult of Hera the forest also
…rises up in the air as a huge cathedral; and we can easily imagine it as populated by the huge and varied zoomorphic family also replete with a wide and varied collection of herbs and flowers. They form the secret garden of the goddess from which she alone can extract magic and healthy potions. In the cult of Hera too, there is a calm mirror of water on the banks of which she appears… Hence, we are talking about an original identity, which cannot be neglected; an identity enabling me to find in the western Mediterranean area the same forms of cult dominating the Aegean-Anatolian world…This whole area, where small groups of Mediterranean people used to land on, coming one after the other over a short period of time and bringing with them their tutelary deity, who was nothing but one form of the only great Mediterranean goddess, so, as I was saying, this whole area was full of wild and healthy cults, each one referring to a divine personality, the lady of a hortus conclusus, an unlimited source of any kind of spells.
It is not surprising, then, that many centuries later Morgana, the heiress of an uninterrupted tradition of wisdom and worship, “lives alone in Avalon, a western island, as this is what her superhuman nature commands”. But, Marconi notes that Morgana “despises loneliness, that is why she attracts the bravest knights to her island or she moves from here in search for adventures. Avalon looks like Aeaea (the origin land of Circe situated in Colchis overlooking the Eastern Black Sea, A/N). The magician needs a far-off land away from humans to which they can have access only if assisted by divine help, where the goddess can perform the most varied metamorphoses, be surrounded by faithful animals, cultivate particularly useful herbs and plants for her activity, prepare strange potions and balsams, in short be free to perform her secret art. Even when the goddess is not on a real island, she lives anyway… in remote and inaccessible places where a man cannot enter safely without her will or without being called by her voice”.
The fact that in the most ancient religions in human history, the cult could only occur in the open air—or more precisely “in a space not built by human hands” as the Celts believed—is something that the pre-patriarchal civilizations all over the world have in common. I will mention just one example, which still exists in the Japanese archipelago of Okinawa[ii].
In what is considered the most ancient form of Japanese religion, the Ryu-Kyu Shinto, where priestly duties are performed exclusively by women, there is no difference between the worshipped divinity and the place of the cult (utakis). Being that the sacredness of these places is full of divine essence, the divinities themselves are simply called by the name of the place.
In this form of ancient Shinto, where no central authority rules the beliefs, every priestess (noros and tsukasas) enjoys full independence as regards to the mythology and the form of the cult of which she is the mediator and guarantor. Kinamon, the main divine character, who is also called Nirai-Kanai, is actually a dual creature, being at the same time male and female, which is very common in the most ancient myths of creation all over the world. Nirai-Kamai is not worshipped in a temple, but in the trees and in the rocks where she came down to inhabit at the beginning of creation.
As a result, as in the Australian mythology, whose origin dates back to the Dreamtime, these places are so holy that they cannot be acceded by anybody but the priestesses and only in some cases. The access to the six main holy places of the archipelago is strictly limited or even forbidden. On the whole island of Kudaka, where the first human creature was created by Ama-mi-Kiu, Nirai-Kanai’s daughter, nobody is allowed to live. This is also true for the western beach of Okinawa where, up to the beginning of the Second World War, only the kami-tsukasas were admitted.
Even though a human intervention has been carried out to underscore the attention and care paid, the place of the cult, be it a holy mountain (like Fujiyama for the whole of Japan), a hole, a clearing of grass or sand, a hidden spring in a forest, a cave, a cavern, a drop, a stack or a wall of rock, a grove, a single tree or simple thick stones “from which the sun rises”, must strictly be in the open air.
Their basic form, which is nowadays simply called “temple”, is a small wall of dry stones rising straight from the floor, not higher than 70 cm, sometimes overcome by a stone slab where oblation is placed; it is often surrounded by another small wall or by a set of circular trees as a means of containment or protection. These utakis are generally in the open countryside, in a wood or on a beach, though they can sometimes be found near a village, in which case they act as “guardians”, like Ala in Nigeria, the great mother of the Ibos, who used to be sitting inside the porch of a small wooden temple in such a way that all the inhabitants of the village could see her, meaning that her soul was fluttering over the whole community.
Another interesting word to understand the force and width of this sacredness of nature as the place of divine expression (source/soul of the creation and the perennial creative energy, which needs to be kept whole and pure in order to ensure its continuity) is ibi, which, according to some sources, refers to the divinity itself, in this case other than the place of the cult. According to other sources, it is the holiest part of the utaki. Ibi could also include a whole forest or the sea itself.
A modest building can be found near the main utakis, destined to the purification of the noros before the rituals, which further confirms that the holiest place is in the open air, whereas any closed place is only used by priestesses to prepare themselves for the sacred ceremonies.
The columns of the first temples in the western world and all its sacred architecture were created by imitating the natural environment, the clearing surrounded by the trees: forests of stone where air still flowed among the marble trunks, only later enclosed by Christianity with walls—sometimes looking almost temporary or erected hastily (to hide the holy place, to isolate it, to separate it from nature, which starts to get desacralized and finally becomes an inanimate entity to exploit). This can be seen in many churches, from the Jesuits’ church in downtown Lisbon to the Doric temple of Athena, which is now part of the cathedral of Ortigia (Syracuse), where the columns are still well visible and powerful, not completely included in the perimeter walls.
The catastrophic drama of the Death of Nature occurs in this passageway, in these enclosures, dealt with by Carolyn Merchant in her homonymous book[iii], in which she retraces the crucial centuries that culminated in the “Renaissance”, that is the passage from the magic-holistic to the scientific vision.
Fatima, one of the well known holy places of Christianity tells us how eternal the holy tree is to people’s imagination. There, the Virgin Mary appeared on a holm oak at the beginning of the twentieth century, in the middle of a grove of olive, oak and fruit trees sloping down to a perennial spring.
The contrast with the contemporary reality is sharp; the sacredness of the places and the vegetal kingdom have rarely been desecrated more, and without any limits, as they have been in the decayed Italian landscape. Nymphs, dwellers of water, irrigated and fertile lands, left these places a long time ago, just as Hecate and Phoebe, Hygeia and Bona Dea, Feronia, Diana, Flora and many others left their secret gardens, once “replete(d) with vigorous and venerable trees”.
[i] A collection of essays by Momolina Marconi (1912-2006) has been recently republished (Anna De Nardis ed., Da Circe a Morgana. Scritti di M. Marconi, Rome, Venexia, 2009).
[ii] Translated into English from Herbert, J. La Religion d’Okinawa, Paris, Collection Mystiques et Religions, Dervy-Livres, 1980.
[iii] Translated into English from Merchant, C. La Morte della Natura. Dalla natura come organismo alla natura come macchina, Milan, Garzanti, 1988.