Explorations Into Liminality
“and there came an arm and a hand above the water and met it and caught it, and so shook it thrice and brandished it, and then vanished away the hand with the sword in the water.”

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Glass Offering

As with most things which hold my fascination, glass has ancient roots.

Colored glass beads dating to around 3500 BC have been discovered in Egypt and Mesopotamia; not the oldest types of beads, but certainly an artistic step in the evolution of this form of ornamentation. Glass glaze on ceramics was introduced to the Mediterranean in the third millennium by Phoenician merchants.

Hollow glass making was developing in the 16th century BC in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and China. Fragments of glass vases were found in Mesopotamia, and vases decorated with the name of Pharaoh Thoutmosis III can be dated to 1504-1450 BC.

Not until the 9th century BC did glassmaking really spread further, when the center became Alexandria. From here did it most likely spread to Italy.

Finally, sometime between 27 BC and AD 14, glassblowing was discovered. Today, artists use relatively the same techniques and tools. In the last century BC, Romans began blowing glass inside moulds, which allowed for a greater variety of shapes. It was the great influence of Rome which really allowed for the glass industry to spread abroad.

Let me stop here, though, and focus on ancient Roman glass. There are a great number of artefacts existing in various states of intactness. Even the shards are so beautiful that they are prize finds in archaeological digs and make their way into fascinating jewelry art (yes, I have a few pieces in my collection!).

Relying on my favorite accessible antiquities website, Ancient Touch, to tempt and taunt me with objects of ages past, I offer these images for you to admire and ponder. The iridescent patinas and graceful shapes are captivating, and I imagine holding an amphora up to the light and letting it spin out tales of another world. They have survived thousands of years and bear the memory of water and wine, and the imprint of many hands and mouths.

Modern yet with an ancient aesthetic is the glass art of Willsea O’Brien.

These phenomenal artists work with color and form like divinities stirring up time and space. The ancestors of their craft would stand in awe of their creations and declare them god-touched.

These are just some of the things that influence me when I work with my small and humble bits of glass. I imagine through the past and admire the contemporary, and it inspires me to make an offering.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Hope Is A Thing With Feathers

Feathers speak in images… breath, freedom, spirit, hope, transformation, truth, flight, vision, wind, power.

Since ancient times they have held symbolic meaning and spiritual significance for people across the continents; depicted in the earliest art on cave walls, pottery, jewelry, and tombs, mythology and creation stories, feathers are infused in virtually every culture.

Macaw feathers, native to the southerly Americas, have been found in prehistoric archaeology sites in North America, indicating extensive trade or import of these valuable objects, though their use is not certain. However, in recorded history, colorful parrot feather head dresses have been worn by indigenous people of Central and South America to signify nobility. Whether used as status symbols, religious items, or pure ornamentation they must have been highly prized to have traveled so far from their indigenous origins.

In Egyptian religion, Ma’at sat in judgment of the dead, wearing her ostrich feather on her head. She stood for truth and order, and weighed the deceased’s heart against the feather in hopes their souls were pure enough to attain the Afterlife. I wonder if the popular imagery of the “freedom heart”, the winged heart, is a descendant of the Goddess’ trial.

Feather cloaks were widespread in European and Norse mythology. Druids wore ritual cloaks made from many different birds; think of Rhiannon’s three birds which were white, gold and green. The Valkyries donned swan capes to transform and fly away, and Freyja could turn into a falcon by wearing a robe of the same feathers.

There are countless stories of maidens-who-are-birds and alight to the ground to take human form, folding their feathers into a garment beside them. One of my favorite stories is a re-telling in the shape of a song by the Decemberists, “The Crane Wife”. Set in Japan, a peasant man finds a crane that’s been shot by an arrow and he heals it, watches it fly away. Days later a woman appears to him, they fall in love and are married. To assuage their poverty she begins weaving with his vow that he will never look upon her while she makes this beautiful cloth. In his greed he works her to illness, and as is the wont of mortals, he fails her and spies, cracks the enchantment open:

“Each feather, it fell from skin

Until threadbare, she grew thin

How were my eyes so blinded?

Each feather, it fell from skin”

Of course, his fate is sealed and she resumes her crane form, leaving him alone on the ground; she, adorned in feathers again at last.

Feathers are certainly imbued with magical properties, as seen in the wands in the world of Harry Potter. At the core of the wand lies a feather, and the combination of the wood and the feather resonates with individuals differently.

Probably the most significant spiritual feather symbolism lies within the belief system of indigenous people of the Americas. Native American chiefs and warriors, especially of certain plains tribes, wear magnificent head dresses of eagle feathers which have been earned, each by each. Eagle feathers are incredibly important in creation myths, cultural ceremonies and healing. They transcend the mundane world and carry prayers to the spirit world; they are powerful medicine.

When you find a feather how does it make you feel? Do you see it as a gift, an omen? A message from Elsewhere, healing medicine?

Well, before you pick it up as a special treasure, be forewarned: The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 was designed to protect birds from the irresponsible trade in birds and feathers at the time. Four other countries signed this agreement (Canada, Mexico, Japan and Russia) to protect migratory birds. “The statute makes it unlawful to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill or sell birds listed therein (“migratory bird”). The statute does not discriminate between live or dead birds and also grants full protection to any bird parts including feathers and nests. Over 800 species are currently on the list.”

Eagles, hawks, owls, doves, crows, ravens, vultures, swans, geese, ducks, cranes, and even pigeons, are a tiny representation of the huge list of protected birds. The only special exception is for Native American tribes that are “recognized” by the federal government; they can apply for a permit and then request some frozen eagle parts collected by the Eagle Repository, replete with permission slips to avoid $100,000 fines. So not even an indigenous Holy Person can pick up an eagle feather in the wild.

A parting blessing, with gratitude to Terri Windling for bringing this to me as recorded over 100 years ago in the Scottish Highlands:

Power of raven be yours, Power of eagle be yours, Power of the Fiann. Power of storm be yours, Power of moon be yours, Power of sun. Power of sea be yours, Power of land be yours, Power of heaven. Goodness of sea be yours, Goodness of earth be yours, Goodness of heaven. Each day be joyous to you, No day be grievous to you, Honor and compassion. Love of each face be yours, Death on pillow be yours, And God be with you.

*special nod to Emily Dickinson for the title of this blog post