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My years of visiting Chile to participate in the School of Ecofeminist Spirituality and Ethics in Santiago, Chile began with an invitation I received to continue Madonna Kohlbenschlag’s use of Toni Wolff’s schema of four relational women.  When the schema proved useful, it continued as part of a curriculum.

When asked about these teaching experiences in South America, I respond by recalling the history of the censure of the South American liberation theologians and the exclusion of women from teaching positions in seminaries. Although their embodied perspective and their dreams of contribution to the education of the young left seminary classrooms, these teachers continued to dialogue with women in their communities. Familiar with Paolo Freire’s popular education methods, they took their theological inquiry, as Alison Krauss sings, Down to the River to Pray.

The theologians went where women, while doing their laundry, talk about what interests them. They went where they could ponder, listen, recollect. They went where listening and speaking, where healing and memory, express and authenticate their ethical and spiritual experience. They went where there was a hope of empathic response. This methodology reflected their commitment to valuing real experience.  On my first trip to South America, at a retreat house by the sea, I met women living out this theological inquiry by creating a school—and their future.

I found those directing the School in a process of examining the assumptions of patriarchy as these assumptions influenced their spiritual lives and their capacity for leadership.  Beyond reacting to codified doctrine, they were creating.  They sought empowering knowledge and experience. They continued asking the theologians’ question: what are the forces promoting and resisting liberation?

The women were open to studying Toni Wolff’s types and confronting the reality that the Wolff schema was constructed within the culture of patriarchal Western Europe.  As activists, as professional women, as survivors of political oppression and exile, as women of faith and loss, hope and realism, they had impersonal interests in reexamining assumptions and very personal commitment to each other in forming a feminist network.  

For my part I believed that Wolff’s schema could be regarded as like a morphogenetic field which could respond to right brain methodologies.  I wanted to explore with the women the interactive dynamism of Wolff’s schema—I regarded Wolff as potentially a deep ecologist.  As an ecofeminist, I dreamed of exploring the potential of the concept of an evolving Mother Universe of Superspace—the Mother Earth. Deeply aware of the significance of devalued images of the feminine, I looked forward to exploring feminine images arising from the unconscious mind. I believed the women would be my teachers in determining how Wolff’s four types might contribute to the twentieth century’s expanding field of adult development theory.

Myth, history, poetry

I found the women open to exploring myth as coming from deep history’s sense of unbounded wholeness. As creation myths recount a first interior separation-out-from (the feminine from the masculine, the child from the mother, consciousness from a dream state), myth describes the emergence of a self-in-community. The women reviewed familiar creation stories leading up to the Biblical account of a transcendent God hovering over a great void. While also tracking the myths of South America, the women chose to enact the Enuma Elish, an account familiar to people of the Fertile Crescent. 

This Mesopotamian tale can be thought of as an account of life before consciousness, the time of the bitter and salty waters, the Ocean of Blood. The myth recounts a challenge to the sovereignty of the monstrous first being of the salty waters, Tiamat. From the perspective of the many lesser gods of her realm, Tiamat’s plenitude needed management.  The gods wanted more freedom from her sovereignty for their own pursuits.  In a ferocious battle, the Mother and source of all forms, the watery abyss itself, Tiamat, loses her centrality to the imposing storm god, Marduk.  Perceived as without order or control, the Tiamat world succumbs to Marduk who must use stealth and brutal attack to establish a new order and himself as lawgiver. The slaughter ends Tiamat’s hollow space within, her chaos, her void.

As a way to think about the struggles for power featured in some myths, I offered the possibility that an effort to regulate and control the city water works was the political issue inspiring the male rise to power.  (When I studied with her years earlier, historian Rosemary Ruether offered control of the water works as a political power move and one example of a hypothesis accounting for the rise of male oligarchical power in the realm of social administration--even as she cautioned her students against allowing speculation to become fact.)  Gradually my own speculations would involve the unintegrated aggressive impulses characterizing our neurological psychic evolution. From time to time, I acknowledged that I was perhaps unduly influenced by the budget of the Defense Department in my own country.

From the first days of my bilingual participation in the School, I associated my teaching experiences with creative movement.  I studied group dance improvisation with Barbara Mettler, a pioneer innovator in the field of dance.  Barbara described the art of creative movement as the creation of a form to provide esthetic experience.  Almost any daily life experience can have esthetic value.  There can be an art of human relations, an art of living….The form of an art work is satisfying when we perceive it as beautiful. With these women called together by Con-spirando and Capacitar to the School of Ecofeminist Spirituality and Ethics, I experienced the freedom and the hard work of considering cosmological events and making art—as well as the satisfaction of experiencing the results of our work—strong, erotic, beautiful outcomes.

Repeated experiences with the School allowed a gradually more developed understanding of Wolff’s schema and the paradoxical experience of diversity arising from the singularity of a primordial principle, the Mother Earth producing endless variety. My desire was to focus on whether Toni Wolff’s use of Jung’s fourness pattern with its predilection for the mandala as an expression of entirety could be a valid expression of complex interactions in adult relational life.  Would our efforts lead to a new understanding of the archetype of endless possibility as the source of life for our universe?  Would the fourness pattern allow us to track the social history of the denigration of the value of the natural world, of the feminine in particular, and of the vulnerable?

Could we find an understanding of chaos as the order of bringing forth, rather than as the disorder of random, mindless and possibly corrupt instinct? Or, would we find a paradoxical dance of order/disorder in a dynamic schema?  A repeated return to the concept meant a gradual sense that the four forms enliven each individual in their uneven and jostling co-presence. We designed a greening illustration of the dynamic/static tension inherent in Wolff’s psychological graphing of the feminine.

Psychoanalyst Betty Meador’s study of newly discovered Mesopotamian poetry by Enheduanna, the High Priestess of ancient Sumer and sister to the emperor, Sargon, led to the 2001 publication of Inanna Lady of the Largest Heart. Since Enheduanna’s writings predated Homer’s, this discovery makes her the first known writer.  She emerges as an authentic feminine voice for the experience of being a woman in a given historical period.

As High Priestess, Enheduanna was a devotee of the Goddess Inanna, she- who-is-the-divine in matter. Enheduanna’s poetry praises the very four aspects of the feminine which Toni Wolff describes in her twentieth century schema.  The poet admires the paradoxes of Inanna’s strength and devotion, gentleness and command, lust and control while rejoicing in a divine power of one-who-is-like-me, one who delights in her life.  The first lines of Enheduanna’s poem salute the fierce aspect of the goddess Inanna: 

Lady of largest heart, keen-for-battle queen …. She is Inanna/Bearer of Happiness/ whose strapping command/ hip-dagger in hand/ spreads radiance over the land.  

Late twentieth century recoveries of early Sumerian poetry and grave findings in the vast area of the steppes (available only after the dissolution of the Soviet Union) shed light not only on the lives of on the people of  the Fertile Crescent empires of the Iron Age, but on the nomadic tribes of Eurasia as well. Archeological discoveries of tombs of priestesses of high rank sometimes included both insignia of their priestess duties and indications of their warrior status, particularly if their horses were buried with them. Reconstruction of the lives of these nomadic people also reveals the essential contribution of the women described as hearth mistresses and whose competencies were essential to the nomadic life style. 

These recoveries of Sumerian and Eurasian culture validate the existence of societies incorporating women’s athletic courage, focus, and strength (horsewoman/amazon) as co-present with the capacity for nurturance and competence in sustaining the community (hearth mistress/mother) and the wisdom and guidance needed to discern and decide (priestess/medium).  Such positive attributes indicate their integration of the life energy associated with the hetaira. The discoveries of Eurasian nomadic life particularly modify the male imagination of later Greek writers who wrote more lurid tales of separatist Amazon women.

During the first years of the School’s engagement with origin stories, theories of consciousness evolving in human history also influenced my perspective.  I was particularly stirred by Jean Gebser’s observation that our present experience of origin as the Ever Present, the beginning moment, the now, is also the awareness that our times are those of a world in crisis, a world in the process of complete transformation in the present moment. Gebser’s sobering response to the present moment in history evoked an image from a poem of Rilke’s.  The poet sees an animal moving: the free/ Animal moves… it moves, like a fountain/ Already in eternity it moves, a fountain. In our experiences, the School as a fountain of growing consciousness and transformation sometimes transcended time and the pressing realities of problem solving tasks in local communities, in religious studies and in political conflicts.

In our embrace of both deep history and the present moment, I considered the association between nature and the feminine a challenge to the dualistic thinking which severs creation from destruction, war from peace, Tiamat from Marduk, tribal life from city states, tenderness from fierceness.  Fierceness was experienced in enacting another myth: the Descent of Inanna to visit her Sister, Ereshkigal.  Ritual also allowed us a more conscious experience of shadow dilemmas arising within and among ourselves.

The School’s creative approach to its teaching goals occasionally raised the issue of myth as an expression of knowledge rather than as regressive fantasy. Computer scientist W. S. Clocksin, writing on knowledge representation, challenges the slighting of mythic authenticity.  He recognizes that while myth is popularly thought of as “archaic and irrational”, and as “so foreign to experience that [it] cannot be true”, myth is also “a legitimate way of expressing the transcendent meaning and structure of the knowledge and concerns of all human beings.” Because the School considered ethical dimensions inherent in creation stories, we were in the grip of new efforts to know what is –to know being itself.  I recalled Toni Wolff’s openness to the imaginative expansion of possible forms in her schema which I believed I was experiencing in the form of the energy generated in community.

I appreciated the many community organizers among the women coming to the School.  Their awareness, flowing from working with the oppressed and marginalized, meant that they instinctively were searching out new understandings in recognition of the historical moment so as to act on it.  Informed by their participation in global movements challenging anthropocentric and westernized thought, the women were ready to reassess women’s historical contributions to community life and to strengthen both their effectiveness in challenging abusive practices—sex trafficking, female mutilation customs, water and food shortages, land and plant ownership—and their rights of expression and participation.

Wolff’s forms and evolution

Disentangling symbolic representation from its time-bound aspect is necessary when myth and cultural stereotypes collide.  The School taught by designing studies as energetic experiences for each relational type. This embodied methodology was especially necessary for Wolff’s hetaira and amazon forms. While earlier mother and oracle forms could be caricatured as wicked and devouring and irrational, it was still more challenging to separate images of the hetaira and amazon images from historical and misogynistic stereotyping.

The hetaira status granted in Greece’s nascent democracy allowed unmarried women who were companions in wit and charm to own property.  This made it possible to create salons and invite philosophical discussion. The custom fostered a personal relatedness not constituted by marriage with its focus on domestic life and child rearing.  Hetairas expressed women’s equality only in the context of women as compelling and balancing diversions from the enclosure characterizing domestic life.  While slaves, street prostitutes, concubines and early homoerotic romances were sexually available to Greek citizens, they did not represent, as did the hetaira, the esthetic ideal of wisdom and beauty. Unfortunately, there are no records which articulate women’s experience of these societal roles. Hetairan women whose allure has been continuously exploited by famed courtesans throughout history, relegated the wife to her home where her limited education and daily domestic duties restricted her physical freedom.

Wolff, unaware of the future validation of the actual existence of girls and women educated and skilled as athletes and warriors, borrowed the distorted amazon image created by historians and by the male imagination of a woman not domesticated by family life or cultivated as an adornment in private life. It continues to prove difficult to type women as at once skilled athletes, intellectuals and mothers—much less to grasp the significance of separating out erotic energy from other social roles and assigning it to the hetaira.  It was left to the future to more closely examine the nature of repressed desire.  Wolff used the amazon image which she associated with nuns and athletes to convey a woman’s relation to communal life, to mature independence, to service of the common good.

Opportunities to consider whether erotic energy is present in all forms of life arose spontaneously during the School’s sessions.  Erotic energy is linked with relationship itself rather than with any one social capability.  While aware of pornographic projects of erotic energy and the realities of predatory behavior or of seductive power over others—now promoted by an industry involving profits in the billions—the School faced the task of distinguishing manipulation from inhibition and prudery.   Perhaps a seduction into joy was exactly what was needed if one could imagine such experience without predatory overtones, concealment, manipulation, grandiosity and hypocrisy. If pleasure is limited to satisfying others at the expense of the self or to satisfying the self at the expense of others, the free relationship of equals suffers.  And we were illustrating a schema of relationship and freedom.

Hetaira also came to my mind when I reflected on the dark side of freedom’s benefits: the fears which characterize a repressive society. During my first visits to Chile, the ubiquitous effects of a political coup were in questions subtly influencing our exchanges.  Whose integrity could be trusted?  Trust is tested by early panic experiences: where is the missing parent? Where is the safety net?  Where is the one who played, held, admired and protected? Gradually, I felt my own trust growing in myself and in my connections with others. Perhaps we risked in tentative ways, but we did risk. And we provided for ourselves and for each other life-giving experiences. Even, at times, individuals seemed transformed by trust.  I found guidance reviewing the advice of bell hooks whose teaching experiences influence my own. 

We found in the mother the comfort of being held and resting deeply, in the medium the affirmation of our instinctive collective wisdom and our practices of intellectual craft, in the amazon our delight in focus, courage, skill. The use of relational forms and the challenge of integrating forms for the sake of complex ethical and psychological maturity inherently focused us on relational consciousness and on the diversity of ways in which life forms connect and interact.  These understandings were critical and challenged by integration of new forms and the challenge to relate to difference. I believe it was in the dynamism of the Hetaira, the Magdalen of history, that we faced most challenge since it is this energy field which is most susceptible to risk.

The women of the School, freed of some of the constraints of Toni Wolff’s situation, used her schema to express their real experiences, to question male imagination and our own failures in imagination, to examine historic misconceptions or distortions, to confront restrictions of the feminine presence, to more concretely appreciate our physical, material embodiment.  Process led to an experience of depth and sometimes awe.  Processes involving aspects of specific relationships brought us to a schema of challenging integrations.  These complexities were mandalas, streams flowing from that fountain Rilke imagined.  The School as a Fountain.

Vitality was the core of my experience of the School.  I felt desire infusing the amazonian skill and mediumistic knowledge of the containing mother.  Without eros, the body is not a vital life force but a project to manage, an unending unmet need, even a repository of projection and repulsion.  With hetairan awareness, however, the mother is delighted by her children’s potential and with her own. With amazonian courage, wisdom guides the mother to fullness in the release of her daughters and sons into individual and communal destinies.

W.F. Clocksin, “Knowledge Representation and Myth” in Nature’s Imagination
                           The Frontiers of Scientific Vision. 1995
Jeannine Davis-Kimball, Warrior Women.  2002
Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin.  1984
Judy Grahn, Blood, Bread and Roses   How Menstruation Created the World.  1993
Betty De Shong Meador, Inanna Lady of the Largest Heart.   2001
Barbara Mettler, The Nature of Dance as a Creative Art Activity.   1980

Maruja Gonzalez Torre translated this Shared Visions article for Con-spirando’s special review issue in 2009 and in 2010, I began the following account for English speaking readers . In 2011 I was able to include comments on working with Chilean men in 2009 and 2011.  These meetings paralleled the meetings with women in dealing with developmental psychology using the lens of relational forms.