Ochun: the West African Venus
As we approach May Eve, I remember something extraordinary that happened to me four years ago in Bogota, Colombia. It was my meeting in dream with Ochún: one of the most powerful visionary experiences of my life.
It perhaps happened because the previous year, when I was in Cuba, I had had an initiation into Santería, the Afro-Caribbean religion. Maybe that opened a door somewhere. But the encounter with Ochún was completely unexpected and had a power all of its own.
The piece that follows was written for a Buddhist magazine, which posed the question of what relationship the Celtic Goddesses might have to Buddhism. This was my answer, with no apology for wandering away from the Celtic theme (though I did get Robert Graves in!). I repeat it here in love and gratitude to the Goddess who so kindly paid me a visit that night on the eve of May Day.
REFLECTIONS ON A COPPER MOON
I sit beside the dark, fast-flowing river, watching the disc of the full moon straight ahead. It has a reddish tinge; its light glitters on the surface of the water and casts shadows under the bushes beside me. Something darts from the undergrowth at my right. To my amazement it’s a black cat. It runs towards me and began to circle me clockwise. Others follow: dozens, hundreds of cats stream from the bushes. They run fast and they close in, dancing, brushing my skin with their fur, a whirlpool of black cats. Then, as suddenly as they appeared, they veer away and vanish into the forest.
I know I have to leave for my appointment with the woman. I’ve been told to wait in the house next door. Sure enough, a lovely slender woman with long hair comes in. She dances around me in a circle, close up, like the cats. But almost at once she’s gone. I know that I have to follow her now, to the house next door, her house. And as soon as I walk in I see her. But now she’s not alone. There’s a man with her, and a huge black dog. She smiles at me. She has something important to tell me. I think she’s speaking Spanish but I’m not sure. ‘This moon is the moon of copper,’ she explains. ‘Copper, because it comes between silver and gold.’ She gestures towards the man. ‘And now,’ she says, ‘you must kiss my companion.’
I’m a bit troubled by this. But I needn’t worry. The man bends forward and gives me the slightest brush on the lips, a mere formality. We’re not finished yet, however. ‘Next,’ says the lady, ‘you have to kiss my dog.’ The dog is like a very large black Labrador. I have a dog at home and I like dogs. I guess I can tolerate kissing it. I bend down and look into its loving, dark brown eyes. The dog flickers its tongue out and gives me just the tiniest lick on my lips. No problem.
‘And now,’ says the lady, ‘you can kiss me.’ She pulls me towards her in her arms. This time it’s a real kiss. It’s delightful: she kisses me like a lover and I can feel the soft pressure of her tongue on mine. She smiles at me. ‘Look into my mouth,’ she says.
She beckons me to come close again, and she opens her mouth. Something very strange happens. Her lower jaw seems to change shape, to elongate a little. There’s something not quite human about it. A piranha? A cayman? I peer into her mouth. I can see several things: a rounded stone pebble; a small cylinder of polished bone or ivory, about the size of a chessman; and, astonishingly, I can somehow see through the back of her throat: instead of flesh there is empty space, the sky, and in the midst of it the copper-coloured disc of the full moon.
She closes her mouth and her jaw returns to normal. Once again she is a beautiful, blonde woman. She holds me at arm’s length, a twinkle of amusement in her eyes, smiling as if to cheer up a favourite child. ‘Don’t worry,’ she says. ‘I’ll look after you.’
And I wake with a soundless crash, as if I had fallen into the bed from a great height. My heart is pounding, my scalp prickling. The pitch-dark room crackles with a weird energy, as if the whole place were charged with static electricity. Shakily I get out of bed and look for the light. I’m in a hotel room in Bogotá. I’ve just had one of the strangest dreams of my life, and I feel sure of one thing: it didn’t come out of my little personal psyche.
I tell this story (it happened in April 2007) to show that even thirty years of Samatha practice may not immunise you against visitations from deities (or spirits or apparitions, call them what you like) who seem to have nothing to do with Buddhism. But then, I’ve always felt that the Buddha’s teaching takes for granted the existence of countless non-material beings – good, bad and mixed. The Wheel of Life, that popular image in the art of nearly all Buddhist traditions, shows the realms of the hungry ghosts, of the asuras or titans, and of the gods themselves. And Buddhist texts – even the supposedly ‘plain and simple’ Pali suttas – show just how rich and varied the realms of the gods are. In the Kevaddha Sutta, the Buddha describes a monk who wants to know where the four elements, earth, water, fire and wind cease and leave no trace behind. He develops his meditation and then, to ask his question, travels in turn to the heavens of the Four Great Kings, the Thirty-Three gods, the Yama gods, the Gods Who Rule Over Creation, the Gods Who Inspire the Creations of Others, and the Brahma realms.
Of course he doesn’t find the answer there, because the gods – though more beautiful and long-lived than we are – are no more enlightened than ourselves. The Buddha explains that the place where the elements (and even name and form) cease, is in the Enlightened mind, which is free of them all. But as for those gods, countless other Buddhist texts take for granted the existence of such beings. The biographies of numerous eminent meditation teachers confirm the same view, telling of how they met, talked and debated with deities of many kinds.
Whether we ‘believe’ in the existence of the gods is up to us, but at least we might keep an open mind. Certainly, the question of whether the specific gods and goddesses of the world’s religions – past, present and future – actually exist as ‘persons’ is a difficult one. Are Indra, Osiris, Quetzalcoatl, Aphrodite, Thor and all the rest of them wandering around somewhere in the spiritual cosmos at this very moment? Frankly, I don’t know. I suspect that it isn’t quite that simple. Such beings, if they do exist, certainly don’t have material form as we know it. Perhaps they are more like living centres of psychic energy. Perhaps they merge and separate – changing from one to many and back again – in ways we find hard to imagine. (Indeed, if there is any truth in Jung’s idea of the Collective Unconscious, there must be a viewpoint from which the whole of humanity is, in a sense, a ‘single’ person.) It may well be that human feelings – devotion, love, fear and so on – give the gods form, a kind of shape that enables our imaginations to grasp them, but also distorts them in the process. We see them, and imagine them, for the most part in terms of what we already know. What is not in doubt is that at times such beings – whether Celtic goddesses or Christian angels – can inspire us, bring us wisdom or protection, or, for that matter, trouble us. For we should always remember that the gods, if they exist, are not themselves enlightened. Like humans they may be wise or foolish, honest or deeply dishonest. Some are perhaps malicious: think of the asuras, the jealous titans who want to get into heaven by force, and who make war on the gods. I suspect that this category includes many of those so-called gods whom humans have ‘worshipped’ with human and animal sacrifice. The energy of the asuras corresponds to the mental states of kings and warrior-castes who live by violence and fear.
It was in 1944, towards the end of World War II, that one of the most dramatic irruptions of a ‘pagan’ deity into modern culture took place. The poet Robert Graves was then living in Devon. Age, and wounds from the previous World War, had led to his being turned down for war service, so he was writing and researching as usual. Suddenly he found himself taken over by a vast current of psychic energy, in which he unexpectedly began to see answers to several of the unsolved mysteries of Celtic culture. ‘My mind,’ he recalled later, ‘ran at such a furious rate all night, as well as all the next day, that it was difficult for my pen to keep pace with it. Three weeks later I had written a seventy-thousand-word book’ – which became the first draft of The White Goddess.
The book began by examining a group of riddling early-Welsh poems which previous scholars had been unable to interpret with any confidence. Graves solved the riddles and deciphered the poems – to his own satisfaction – revealing them as records of the defeat of goddess-worship in Britain around 400 BC, and its replacement by patriarchy and the predominant worship of male gods.
Graves was convinced that the inspiration for his book came from the Muse Goddess, the moon-goddess or ‘White Goddess’ who, he came to believe, was the object of all pre-patriarchal religion. He believed that he owed his poetry to her, and that she had inspired all the true poets of the past. He was also convinced that society would return to her worship in the future, after the breakdown of male-dominated industrial civilisation. Not that this was necessarily an entirely pleasant prospect, for Graves also thought that the Goddess had her cruel aspects. She might demand human sacrifice, and would certainly make people suffer.
His urgent sense of inspiration, and the fascinating book it produced – eventually published as The White Goddess in 1948 – were undoubtedly real enough. To Graves the Goddess was an actual entity; and she has become an inspiring presence in the lives of many people who have read his book. A whole host of Pagans and enthusiasts for a ‘Celtic’ culture based more on the Romantic imagination than on archaeological evidence have followed in Graves’s footsteps. But has the White Goddess really anything to do with the religion of the Celts (about which in fact we know very little)? Probably not. The Goddess, as Graves depicted her, is surely shaped in the terms of the modern imagination. She is a composite goddess, made up of aspects from a wide range of ancient goddesses from Europe and the Middle East, and mixed with Graves’s personal quirks – he was something of a masochist, and the idea of a cruel goddess had a special appeal for him.
Academic scholars of Celtic culture have rejected almost all Graves’s interpretations – whilst continuing to delight in the stream of students who come to enrol for Celtic Studies after being inspired by his book. Yet though Graves may not have produced reliable interpretations of early Welsh poetry, he certainly created an imaginative world and a system of symbolism which has proved powerful and enduring.
And even that is not the whole story. Not only do the complexity and intensity of The White Goddess show it as an exceptionally rich book, a staggering creative feat. It also introduced ideas of feminist spirituality at a time when these were hardly discussed in western culture, and it warned of an ecological crisis which almost no one else in the 1940s could foresee. Where did all this come from? If Graves felt that his work had been galvanised by a visiting intelligence which took him far beyond what he could have done unaided, perhaps he was right – even if his vision of that intelligence was shaped and distorted by his own personality. Certainly for me it is hard to reconcile the idea of a goddess who inspires poetry, love and scholarship with the vision of a cruel female deity thirsting for blood. And yet again, I am checked by the thought that the compassionate deities of Tibetan tradition have their wrathful aspects. The riddle remains.
I wrote above about ‘living centres of psychic energy’, and perhaps this is the best formulation I can find. It was surely one of these that Robert Graves encountered. Whether such entities dwell in higher cosmic realms, in the individual psyche, or in the ‘Collective Unconscious’ proposed by Jung, is something we could argue about endlessly. Certainly, if I understand the suttas correctly, the Buddha implies that we can at times contact such beings in meditation.
I have no idea whether The White Goddess is accurate in its explorations of Celtic culture – the secret lore of the tree alphabet, the interpretation of the Battle of the Trees as a poem about the overthrow of matriarchal culture, and all the rest of it. But it is a book that casts a powerful spell. I discovered it at sixteen and have never ceased to be fascinated by it. The opportunity to produce a new and more accurate edition of it in 1997 was a delight and an honour for me, a chance to repay something of the debt I felt I owed to the book, and to Robert Graves, for a lifetime of inspiration. And beyond the book itself, I also cherish the notion of an inspiring goddess, one who has many faces and turns up in many cultures, who shows herself to me at certain moments in the woman I love, and who every so often may give an extra touch of magic to a poem I write. I don’t have any feeling that she demands human sacrifice. As far as I’m concerned, impermanence, old age, sickness and death will see to that anyway.
For me the Goddess has a certain reality, as a helper, a friend, someone living on a different plane from me but still a part of samsara, destined no doubt in the end to die and be reborn into this human world, even if she perhaps doesn’t yet know it herself. So I felt honoured as well as amazed that she – or one of her aspects – paid me that startling visit on my first night in Colombia. And I felt sure that someone who knew the local Afro-Caribbean religion would be able to tell me more about her.
I found a babalawu – a shaman – in the Yellow Pages (easy enough in South America) and went to tell him about my dream. ‘The lady you dreamed of was Ochun,’ he told me, ‘the goddess of the river, of the moon and of copper. She granted you a vision of herself. The three kisses were three tests which she set you, and you passed them. She is telling you that she loves you and will take care of you.’ The babalawu advised me to get a picture of Ochun, and told me that when I got home I should offer her five eggs, five candles and five yams.
I took his advice. In Panama City not long afterwards I noticed a shop with a sign that said ‘Esoterica’. I went in, and asked if they had a picture of Ochun. Yes, indeed, I was told, and the lady behind the counter gave me a little plastic-covered Catholic picture of Our Lady of Charity of Copper – a miraculous statue of the Virgin Mary enthroned in Cuba on a mountain where copper was mined, and who is now honoured as the patroness of Cuba. In my picture she floats above the water, on a crescent moon, in a blue robe just the same shade as the dress she wore in my dream. To the Catholics she is the Blessed Virgin; to followers of Santería, the Afro-Caribbean religion that grew up amongst the slaves of the New World, she is Ochun; perhaps to Robert Graves she would have been an aspect of the White Goddess.
I don’t know what she will do with the eggs and the yams, bless her, but I enjoyed offering them to her. They’re near me as I write, on a small table, in two dishes, with a couple of candles, in front of my little picture of Ochun – alias Our Lady of Charity of Copper, alias, perhaps, the White Goddess. In a day or two I shall take them out, as the babalawu instructed me, and leave them in a forest somewhere. But right now it’s time for me to do my meditation and try to take another tiny step on the path that leads beyond the gods, those fellow-travellers of ours on the path to enlightenment.
(A fuller version of these events and what followed them is told in my book Travels on the Dance Floor).