For many of us, death is something we would rather not think about. Why is this? Why do we not want to understand the deepest mystery of life? Why are we so afraid to die? These are some of the questions that beckoned me on a journey to learn about the true nature of death, resulting in a recently published book, Midwifing Death: Returning to the Arms of the Ancient Mother, weaving together knowledge about how our pre-patriarchal ancestors viewed life and death with modem stories telling how the sacred passage of death and dying can be midwifed in grace, love and beauty, which are all aspects of the sacred feminine in women’s spirituality–the oldest spirituality on the planet. What I have discovered, or rather, uncovered, from the forgotten realms of our ancestors is a deep and profound wisdom of the nature of life, death and regeneration. In order to understand aspects of women’s spirituality and their pertinence to death and dying, I feel it is important to have an overview and body-centered sense of what women’s spirituality actually is.
Most of us in this fast-paced Euro-Western culture have no idea how our Neolithic and Paleolithic ancestors experienced the sacred, because we erroneously assume that history begins with Mesopotamia and Sumer. While we cannot say we can know exactly what the ancients knew, we can put the pieces and shards together of the puzzle of our past and see as well as feel a timeless reality that spans past, present and future. Most of the scholarship in archeology, cultural anthropology and cultural history has within it an insidious male bias which has not allowed for accurate vision and conclusion regarding our human evolution. Well-known figures and teachers, such as Joseph Campbell, have realized that without the necessary light of feminist scholarship, we have unfortunately been hoodwinked into believing things about ourselves as a species that simply are not true. Without the advent of recent pioneering scholarship by women such as the late Dr.Marija Gimbutas, archeomythologist, linguist, scientist, professor at UCLA for many years who created the new field of study of archeomythology, and author of the encyclopedic The Language of the Goddess and The Civilization of the Goddess, as well as numerous other books and articles, we would be doomed to create and recreate a fear based, violent and insane reality spawned from lies about who we are as beings on this planet, which we have already been doing quite long enough, successfully contributing to our own demise and that of many other species. My research for my book was deeply influenced by her work, as she has literally unearthed from her diggings and studies of Neolithic Old Europe, evidence of peaceful woman-centered cultures that not only lived in peace, but also flourished in creativity and beauty. She has inspired people from around the world to further study these cultures. It is my prayer that her work will become part of the general curriculum in our schools, for her work and research clearly show that humankind is fully capable of living peacefully, because this is our legacy for the millennia preceding patriarchy, the advent of which occurred some 5,000 years ago. Campbell informs us in the foreword of Gimbutas’ definitive work, The Language of the Goddess:
As Jean-Francois Champollion, a century and a half ago, through his decipherment of the Rosetta Stone was able to establish a glossary of hieroglyphic signs to serve as keys to the whole great treasury of Egyptian religious thought from c.3200 B.C. to the period of the Ptolemies, so in her assemblage, classification and descriptive interpretation of some two thousand symbolic artifacts from the earliest Neolithic village sites of Europe, c. 7000 to 3500 B.C., Marija Gimbutas has been able, not only to prepare a fundamental glossary of pictorial motifs as keys to the mythology of that otherwise undocumented era, but also to establish on the basis of these interpreted signs the main lines and themes of a religion in veneration, both of the universe as the living body of a Goddess Mother Creator, and of all the living things within it as partaking of her divinity-a religion, one immediately perceives, which is in contrast to that of Genesis 3: 19 where Adam is told by his father creator: ‘In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ In this earlier mythology, the earth out of which all these creatures have been born is not dust but alive, as the Goddess-Creator herself.1
From the time we can read and write we are taught that humankind, often referred to as mankind, and I ask you to reflect on that referencing which is constantly used to describe all of humanity, as a symptom of what is not working for us as a species, has always been violent. We are taught and teach our children that history is equated with which great heroes conquered whom and how many wars have been raged throughout time. We have been forced and force our children to learn detailed accounts of violent atrocities perpetuated by these so-called heroes and of violent demises of civilizations, as if this is all good, important and necessary for us to do and to know, without any regard or consideration for the sensitive and beautiful open mind of a child; there is no questioning about how this kind of focus affects the tenderness of a soul and our capacity to be loving and kind human beings. I think it is safe to say that it is painfully and obviously clear that such indoctrination has one outcome–the sanctioning of violence against “other” to the point where we, as a species, are now teetering on the edge of a collective near-death experience. When our children murder other children in our schools, something is deeply and drastically wrong. When men use and abuse children as sexual objects for a temporary fix in an attempt to end their own pain and suffering, something is excruciatingly and drastically wrong. With such profound imbalance in our lives, how can we possibly live loving, kind and peaceful lives? And if we cannot live peaceful lives, how can we possibly expect to die in peace?
The global and cross-cultural wisdom of the ancients, prior to pre-patriarchal times, offers wonder, truth and beauty about life and death. At the core of many of these Paleolithic and Neolithic cultures is a wisdom nearly lost to us now, without which we grievously suffer, not understanding why. The central core of strength of early peoples from around the world was the experience of earth as Mother, of universe as Mother, of life emerging from the sacred womb of the Great Mother, also known as Goddess. At the core of these communities was the mother-child bond, which informed all aspects of daily life. When I attended the First International Congress on Matriarchies in Luxembourg two years ago, I heard Chinese professor, Dr. Lamu Gatusa whose work centers on the preservation of the social and spiritual heritage of his people, the matriarchal Mosuo of China, speak to the fact that the mother is considered the origin of life and society expressed in both “ethnic concepts and in the concepts of love.”2
Archeological findings from the work of Gimbutas and many others as well as research by feminist cultural historians such as Dr. Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, show that our ancestors knew very well who gave them life and who sustained life. Birnbaum, professor in the women’s spirituality department at California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco and author of several books including her most recent, ground-breaking dark mother, african origins and godmothers, has researched the African diaspora of homo sapiens and has shown that within the psyche of all humans is a deep memory of the dark mother and her values of justice with compassion, equality and peacefulness.3 Her work is corroborated by eminent geneticists, such as L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza who agree that there is only one human race–Afiican. Birnbaum postulates that the core of the deep spiritual nature of our being is informed by the cellular memory of the dark mother who gives life, sustains life and receives life back unto herself in an eternal cyclical existence deemed as heresy by the later church so-called fathers. The implications of Birnbaum’s work are far-reaching, for she shows us that the notion of race is really an illusion. In understanding this truth, racism is then eradicated. It is also my prayer that Birnbaum’s work will find its way into our curriculum in what we teach our children. If we taught them the truth about who they are and that human beings are far more informed by peacefulness and beauty than insane violence and hatred, as all children really know before this natural wisdom is conditioned out of them, which is happening at increasingly earlier and earlier ages with the age of technology, we will be giving them the tools to live happy, productive, cooperative lives, with a deep respect for their mothers, Mother Earth and Mother Nature, and therefore the extraordinary gift of life and the magical cycle of life, death and regeneration.
The amazing discoveries of the birth, life, death and regeneration murals in the excavations by archeologist James Mellart in Turkey of the 8,000 year old Neolithic culture of Catal Huyuk in the 1960’s beautifully depict the deep and profound reverence in which these early peoples lived. The Catal Huyuk settlement lasted approximately 1,000, years. The unearthed evidence of three different skull types found in various diggings showed that diverse peoples lived together in harmony. There is no evidence whatsoever of weaponry or warfare in any of the murals or iconography. And there is amazing substantiation of the reverence of a Mother Goddess. The majestic Neolithic double temples in Malta and Gozo, themselves symbols of the sacred female principle and predating the pyramids by 1,000 years, have yielded numerous female figurines suggesting the primaIness of woman–she who births life into form. One enters the temples through the sacred yonic gateway, which leads to round earthen womb-like spaces deep inside. And one leaves the temples through the same gateway, experiencing a sense of rebirth and regeneration. The ancients also knew to whom they returned at the end of life. Today there are existing remnants of this mother wisdom alive insuch cultures as the Minangkabau in Sumatra, the Berber in Tunisia, the Mosuo in China and the matriarchal >culture found in Juchitan, Mexico. Significantly, when people revere the Mother and the Sacred Feminine, peace abounds. So, it is true that his-story is about war. And it is also true that her-story is about something else entirely.
My journey with the questions about death began a long time ago. Most recently, I was called to care for my aging parents. When my father became ill, I made a decision that I would help him through his passage from this world into the next. It was a spiritual practice for me to show up in that way, because his wounding had gone unhealed in his life which made him difficult to be with at times. Often when people are dying, and they are afraid, their anger and fear can be released in ways that can be very confusing for caregivers, loved ones and family members. My father’s death was twenty years ago, and since that time 1 have learned a great deal about midwifing death. I have seen the need for people to feel safe at the time of dying. And I have noticed that most people don’t. I wondered why not. That question guided me on my own spiritual quest, as I realized that there was a great deal I did not know about myself, my conditioning, the ruling paradigm I had grown up in, the global wanton hatred of women, culminating in the burning and torture of thousands if not millions of women in the Inquisition, that is, simultaneously, referred to as the age of the Renaissance. This is the single most unspoken event in the recent herstory of our specie-s-the women’s holocaust that lasted for about five hundred years, ending in Europe and in the U.S. only three hundred years ago, now finding current expressions in other parts of the world. It might not be easy to understand why anyone would talk about this in relation to death and dying. For me, it is painfully obvious why it is absolutely necessary. In the cells of every woman is this memory, unseen, untold and forced into exile within a woman’s soul. Death and dying take on a new meaning from this perspective.
Aspects of women’s spirituality in tending to the dying become more comprehensive and encompassing in regard to the current human condition, because if we do not understand the Mother Wisdom from which we are born, we will not know how to impart it to ourselves or to our children, in life and in death. Understanding women’s spirituality is also about cultivating a deep understanding of what is happening on our planet and seeing that the death and destruction, violence, and war we wreak on ourselves is intimately connected with the denial of the Mother Wisdom lying dormant in our cells, though there is a new spark of awakening that is happening around the world as women are choosing to create something new rather than fight against the old.
Interestingly, midwifing my father in his death taught me a great deal about life. I saw that we need a completely new way to live, which is not new information, really, but it came to me in my process with him because I came face to face with my own anger and fear, and I needed to learn how to express myself in compassion and love without blame and judgment,-all the values of the original dark mother. As I continued in my journey helping people die, I felt I was awakening to that cellular memory within me of the Mother and began to create with and for people a new way to be together in one of, if not the most important, mysterious and awesome experiences of a lifetime.
Midwifing the dying means to bring into the experience the sacred values of mothering, which have been all but destroyed in global male-dominated hierarchical cultures around the world. Death for the ancients was always connected with regeneration. In our society, we associate death with the grim reaper-a scary image of a man with a sickle coming to get us. In pre-dynastic Egypt as well as dynastic Egypt, the Goddess Nut is found painted on the bottoms of coffins with open arms and the body of the dead is placed on top of her image, face down, indicating a face-to-face meeting of the mortal with the immortal Mother Goddess. The arms of the Mother Goddess welcomed the dead back into the numinous realm between life and death. The Norse Goddess Hel was the wise eternal grandmother whose womb cave of regeneration, the place where souls went in death to find nurturing in her safe haven of warmth and rebirth, was found deep in the heart of the mountain. Today the remnant of Hel’s sacred domain has become split off from the cycle of life, death and regeneration and has deteriorated into the demonized place of hell where the hot and cold fires of fear and rage are fanned with violence. People are frightened into believing that to be god-fearing will save them from punishment in the afterlife. Fear, however, does not allow for love, openness, surrender and peace, which are all favorable states to be well acquainted with in life in order that one can be prepared for death, and once again, the values of the dark mother from which we all have come.
To bring the values of mothering to the dying requires skill, because we no longer naturally know these values in our bones, though the memory is there. One must cultivate presence and bring to the bedside of the dying a loving openness that is not encumbered with an agenda. And one must keep one’s own fear, anger and need to control in check in order to be truly available to the dying. One must be able to see the needs of the moment and be able to give. This is not a co-dependent giving. This is a giving from the heart that sees and feels, grounded in compassion and authenticity. A loving and present mother knows what is needed. She just knows. It is the same in tending to the dying, which used to be women’s practice prior to the advent of patriarchy. When people feel cared for and safe in their dying process, amazing things can happen. I have witnessed a person who has carried a lifetime of anger shed that deep-seated identity with anger in the moments before death, thereby changing the effects of what they carry with them into the realms beyond. Such was the case of my own mother. I midwifed her in her dying, bringing her home to die in peace. Many of us in this culture are the walking wounded. My parents’ generation, and many before, did not know much of anything else–therapy was not considered as something people needed unless one was diagnosed as mentally ill and needing special confinement. From what I witness, that describes just about all of us. Valium was offered for women who were considered hysterical. Now we have Prozac. So, my mother suffered from a deep depression all of her life, at the same time raising five children and certainly doing the best she could. But she was angry most of her life, having suffered a difficult childhood. In her death, because she was surrounded by love and safety, she could let go of her pain and really surrender into dying. It was an amazing process to witness, because her personality fell away as the true nature of her being emerged. It is said that our true nature is 10,000 times brighter than the sun, and I could actually feel something of this truth as my mother let go of her anger in the hours before her death.
It is motherly love that births life, sustains and tends to it. Why wouldn’t we want motherly love surrounding us in our dying? I am sure most of us would. But most of us do not know what that is, nor what it looks like, because we have been deprived of the ancestral grandmother wisdom that guided, for instance the indigenous peoples of this land, such as the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, as they were named by the French, whose wisdom was not only used in the formation of our constitution, but also was offered by the Haudenosaunee women to the suffering Euro-Western women who were their neighbors to help them realize their own oppression–such women as Matilda Joslyn Gage, Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott. We all know what those women did with what they learned from their Indian sisters.Motherly love in death and dying offers sanctuary, authenticity and open-heartedness to all involved. Fear and anger melt away in the open arms of love, compassion, truth and beauty. However, in order to be able to give in this way, we must cultivate this reality in our lives. This is the ancient global truth of women’s spirituality. It is an indigenous truth that when women are respected, then so is all life, which makes the opposite true as well.If we are to have peaceful transitions from this world to the next, it is imperative that we change our ways and become more aligned with our true nature, which is love. Life is meant to be lived in peace, joy, harmony, abundance and celebration. With such a life, death is not the end, but rather an opening, a portal, into another realm of the Great Mystery.
1 Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess, HarperSanFrancisco, San Francisco, 1989, p.xiii.
2 Professor Lama Gatusa, personal experience/conversation. Also refer to Goddessing, An International Journa lof Goddess Expression, issue #19, 2004-5, article by Leslene della-Madre,” Societies in Balance: Gender Equality in Matrilineal, Matrifocal and Matriarchal Societies, ” p.41.
3 Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, dark mother, Authors Chioce Press, Lincoln, 2001, p.xxvi.
First published on: http://www.midwifingdeath.com/musings/tending_to_the_dying.html
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