The Afro-Brazilian Art of Capoeira: Myth, Legend, Ritual, and Game

In 2008 I began a new journey into the study and training of the Afro-Brazilian martial art Capoeira.  It was only fitting that I take the opportunity to delve deeper into the historical and cultural understanding of Capoeira and its roots as part of my Pacifica course in the African and African Diaspora Traditions.  Please be sure to review the Works Cited for profound resources from prominent researchers and Mestres.


Artwork by Anna Ludwig (Pintora),

Selena Madden

Annette Williams, Ph.D.

African and African Diaspora Traditions, MS 506

Spring Quarter 2017

The Afro-Brazilian Art of Capoeira: Myth, Legend, Ritual, and Game

A unique and diverse cultural practice traces its origins to the African slave population in Brazil in the early 19th century. This practice is unique as a martial art fighting style, as a means of rebelling oppression, as a community in which to find strength and support, and as a tradition honoring ancestors, all creatively hidden within the structure of music, dance, ritual, martial arts, and game. This practice is called Capoeira.

Capoeira has largely been an oral tradition, and because of this, scholars have been challenged to unearth accurate records. The majority of written records found have been left by the white and Portuguese authorities who possessed an incomplete and biased perspective on Capoeira and the people who practiced it. It is largely agreed upon that Capoeira traces its roots to Rio de Janeiro and Bahia and originated with the African slaves who found Capoeira a means of liberation.

I began my Capoeira practice in 2008 under the guidance of Mestre Boneco (Beto Simas) who was one of the primary contributors of Capoeira to the United States. I had studied the Chinese and Japanese martial arts of Kung Fu and Aikido previously, however immediately upon experiencing my first Capoeira roda I felt as though I was part of a cultural anthropological assignment to learn about this foreign tradition.

Roda means circle in Portuguese. The circle carries symbolism cross-culturally relating to the universe, the soul, the seasons, the sun and the moon, and eternity (Talmon-Chvaicer 144). The meaning in Capoeira is no exception. Participants, aka players, aka Capoeiristas, form a roda with the orchestra of musicians at the top of the roda. The music is vital to Capoeira; it is the foundation to the practice in a multitude of ways. Spectators constitute the circle, creating the space where two Capoeiristas will “play the game” of Capoeira.

Capoeira has been coined many terms such as the dance-fight style due to the fact that the movements may appear dance-like, in synchronism with the music, the players with each other, and with the spectators. The agreed upon explanation for this is to hide the fact that a fighting art was being practiced. However, there is also a deeper explanation that relates to connecting with the ancestors by crossing the boundary of the physical into a higher level of consciousness (Talmon-Chvaicer 144).

To elaborate on the first explanation, Capoeira is documented as having originated with the slaves. Consisting of members from various tribes and regions in Africa, this art offered a means of community, connecting with their ancestors, and maintaining a sense of cultural identity. Capoeira also represented an act of rebellion, and as such, the spectator circle hid from the slave masters (and later authorities when Capoeira hit the streets of Rio), the aggressive fighting movements. Connecting with the music connected them with each other and the musical lyrics sang of anything from honoring their homeland, the dangerous trans-Atlantic journey, and devotion to nature and to their deities. Consistent with West African cultures is that dance and music are ways to appease the gods and ask for their help (Talmon-Chvaicer 148-149).

To witness a Capoeira game appears to observe a choreographed dance. Capoeira is not, however, choreographed. The movements complement each other, as a basic premise is to align and synchronize the energy (axé). To do this is to be successful in one’s Capoeira practice. To elaborate deeper, one’s Capoeira practice is a reflection of their personality, their outlook on life, and how they tackle life’s challenges.

Axé_Pintrest find

Axé. Pinterest Find

Mestre (master in Portuguese) Acordeon (Bira Almeida) states it is in the jôgo de Capoeira (game of Capoeira) that one employs their strengths, confronts their fears, and aims to improve oneself (11). “For Capoeiristas, the jôgo de Capoeira transcends each occasion of its actual performance and translates to every moment in the life… We [Capoeiristas] regain the freedom of ourselves only when cooked in the cauldron of Medea which is the jôgo in the roda” (55).


Sometimes personality traits are recognized in the nicknames awarded to Capoeiristas; Boneco (handsome one) and Acordeon (accordion) are nicknames for Beta Simas and Bira Almeida, respectively. The use of nicknames is another ritual in the art of Capoeira, presumably to hide the identities of the practitioners historically from authority figures, since Capoeira was a banned practice resulting in imprisonment, fines and lashings to those caught.

Ritual and tradition are honored the moment the roda begins. The circle forms and the music begins to play. The initiating instrument is the berimbau, a stringed type of instrument that is considered the heart of the roda. The berimbau guides and dictates the mood or dynamic of the roda and can change based on the energy of the players and spectators. Typically there are three berimbaus of different sizes, the sounds of which complement each other: one holds the bass, one keeps the rhythm, and another plays rhythmical variations (Acordeon 75). The other primary instruments to the orchestra are the atabaque (a large drum) and pandeiro (tambourine). Additional smaller percussion instruments may be implemented as well.

Instruments_Axé Capoeira Maryland

Traditional Instruments. Image courtesy Axé Capoeira Maryland

Sometimes the roda will begin with a ladainha which is seen as “an appeal to the gods” (Talmon-Chvaicer 128). When the leader of the roda gives the signal, two players will kneel down in front of the leading berimbau. Typically the players will cross themselves for protection as they prepare to enter a potentially dangerous situation; they may draw protective symbols in the dust; they may touch the base of the berimbau as a blessing and kiss their lips. Whatever the action may be, there is no particular structure and the intent is to honor the gods, respect the memory of ancestors, and seek courage and fortification in the roda.

The spectators clap and sing in a call-and-response pattern reminiscent of Bantu and Yoruba traditions (Talmon-Chvaicer 160). The axé builds. Everyone contributes; there is no passive observation in the roda. The two players then acknowledge each other and typically perform an au or cartwheel into the center of the roda. Again, the circle is symbolized with the action of the au and Talmon-Chvaicer relates this action to Kongolese culture of moving into another state of consciousness (144).

Depending on the rhythm the berimbau has set forth, the Capoeiristas may play a game that is slower and focused on deception, or they may play a flashier game consisting of jump kicks and fast action. Mestre Acordeon elaborates that the Banguela rhythm involves evasions, trappings, and contorted movements; the Iuna rhythm involves acrobatic movements; and São Bento Grande de Regional employs fast and powerful movements (54). Personal expression and experience are employed here. No two movements will be alike. The offense/defense game will shift with each second.

The players will become fatigued and upon concluding their game, step to the outside of the roda out of breath. However, they integrate back into the spectator circle, singing and clapping and find their energy reignited. The berimbau guides and infuses players with “energy, vigor, and magic.” The sounds give strength (Talmon-Chvacicer 132-133).

During my first roda, I was easily influenced and excited to be involved in the spectator circle. The energy is undeniably contagious and even though at that time I was not familiar with the Portuguese lyrics of the songs being sung, I was encouraged to “fake” what I could and sing along. There was no judgment, as Capoeira historically has always embraced people from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds. The tradition behind Capoeira has been freedom and expression and camaraderie.

I was very nervous to play my first game but again, was encouraged, and I was partnered with one of the instructors, nicknamed Amazonas. A tremendous amount of thought was going into remembering the basic movements, and I was not yet at the point of “seeing” the game: recognizing the openings for attack, understanding my vulnerabilities, nor how to truly connect with Amazonas’ axé in the game. This was to be expected from a beginner. Amazonas was skillful in guiding the game, drawing out the offensive movements I had been taught, and giving me time to respond to her own kicks and attacks.

Also during this roda, Mestre Boneco led a hauntingly beautiful Angola rhythm, which is slower, does not employ clapping, and typically offers great reverence to our Capoeira ancestors and history. At this point, the lights were dimmed and the spectators sat in a circle, rather than stand, in order to accommodate the dramatic shift in energy. I recall goosebumps on my arms as Mestre sang and we offered a response to the chorus. I am fortunate in my Capoeira training to be student to a powerful and knowledgeable Mestre whose presence is undeniably forceful and intense. His passion is very clear and he has dedicated his life to the preservation and advancement of this incredible art.

Rhythm served another purpose historically. When slavery became abolished Capoeira was practiced on the streets, typically by the criminals – or so Portuguese documentation has established. It was an outlawed practice, seen as dangerous and disruptive and Capoeiristas were considered to be some of the most dangerous criminals (Talmon-Chvaicer 9). It was not uncommon for knives and blades to be incorporated, such as razor blades being held between the toes. The whirling kicks, already powerful and deceptive, now were capable of slicing the throat of the opponent. When authorities were approaching and the game was lethal, the rhythm was changed to a cavalaria, which resembled a horse gallop. This was a clear signal that the nature of the game needed to be subdued or completely disbanded. A few years ago, my Capoeira group decided to take advantage of the flash mob craze, and in a publicity stunt, we congregated on Hollywood Boulevard near Mann’s Chinese Theatre. Mestre Boneco began playing the berimbau and we slowly came together to form a roda. Because performance permits are required in Hollywood, we soon attracted the attention of the local authorities. I immediately noticed Mestre changed the rhythm to the cavalaria and knew to be on the lookout for the police. This was an incredible example and connection for me to our ancestral roots and to the connection we had with each other in this particular roda.

The berimbau is a powerful instrument and, as a Capoeirista, the sound and the calling are very recognizable when approaching a public roda. It draws forth an energy, an anticipation, and excitement to experience the roda. “The berimbau can pacify the soul when played in melancholy solos; the rhythm is black and strong, a deep and powerful pulse that reaches the heart. It inundates mind, space, and time with the intensity of an ocean tide” (Acordeon 71).

Three primary qualities exist in the spirit of Capoeira: valente, malandro, and Pombagira. Valente translates as courage, bravery, fearlessness; malandro refers to a sly, street-smart quality; and Pombagira is an orixá (deity in Candomblé) that speaks to the feminine power within the art (Nestor Capoeira 45). Valente is critical considering the potential dangers of the roda and the need to assert oneself in the game. The presence of valente can also be linked to the orixá Ogum who thrives on combat and is praised by courage (46). For the advanced and experienced and intuitive Capoeirista, valente submits to malandragem, which finds its basis in seduction, charm, cunning, and intelligence. This is the sly tenet of the game, oftentimes working in sync with malícia, a quality summarizing the ethics of the Capoeira spirit.


Yoruba Orixás. Photo courtesy

Pombagira is an orixá linked to her male counterpart Exú, the messenger god in the Candomblé traditions. “Exú is unpredictable, chaotic, and amoral, doing good and evil without differentiating between the two.” He is also a protector, a spiritual bodyguard of sorts as he travels between the world of the gods, the world of mortals, and the spirit world (Nestor Capoeira 58). This feminine energy in Pombagira finds her place in Capoeira as the “inside strategies” while the outward movements are representative of the masculine (23-24).

The foundation of Capoeira speaks to liberation and rebellion from oppression. As can be common under these circumstances, certain hero archetypes are formed as inspiration and symbols of hope. One such character in Capoeira is Besouro (beetle in Portuguese). Documentation so far is incredibly limited on Besouro, but scholars have estimated Besouro was a real person by the name of Manuel Henrique Pereira who was killed by a piercing to his abdomen in July 1924 (Omulu Capoeira Guanabara).

There is an expression in the spirituality of Afro-Brazilian traditions called corpo fachado which translates as “closed body.” It was believed that this could be achieved with the aid of protection amulets, patua, and made the body impenetrable to harm. The legend of Besouro Mangangá includes this divine medicine. Besouro was regarded as an archetype for freedom; he was a vigilante. Already an accomplished Capoeirista, he was said to have defeated multiple opponents and have the ability to escape difficult situations by taking flight like a beetle, hence his nickname. He is said to have enjoyed taunting and defeating authorities in fighting and was always protected by his patua.

However, the magic, the mangangá, had restrictions: Besouro was forbidden from passing under barbed wire and from sleeping with a woman the night before a fight; lastly if he lost his patua he lost his magical protection. Knowing this, an enemy of Besouro devised a plan. The enemy was Douter Zeca and he called for Besouro to deliver a message to an acquaintance. Besouro was illiterate and unable to read the letter, which instructed the recipient in killing the famed Capoeirista. Besouro was told to wait the night upon delivery for the recipient’s response the next morning. During the course of the evening, a woman was hired to have sex with him and steal his patua. In the morning men attacked Besouro and it was Eusébio Quibaca who stabbed him in the abdomen with a knife made of a special type of wood that killed the legendary Besouro. Nestor Capoeira comments that had Besouro utilized malandro, perhaps the story would have had a very different outcome (48).


Image courtesy

Capoeira offers a way of life that applies outside of the roda. This quality is malícia, speaking to a certain cunning, alertness, readiness, flexibility, and adaptation to circumstances (Talmon-Chvaicer 166). These characteristics can certainly be seen as valuable within the game of the roda and as important attributes with which to conduct oneself through the challenges of life. In a recent event, called a batizado, a high ranking Capoeirista by the nickname Ninja said “It is through the art of Capoeira we find our identity” (Capoeira Batuque Batizado, July 2, 2017).


Mestre Acordeon categorizes one’s Capoeira journey into three stages. The first he calls “playing in the dark” where the student simply learns the movements, unable yet to “see” the game. The second stage is “playing in the water” where the student becomes more aware of the movements and of attacks but still lacks the experience and skill to truly play and connect in the game. The third is “playing in the light”, where movements, timing, and rhythm have reached a level of proficiency. I relate this to having the ability of slowing down movements in the mind. With training and practice, attacks can be more easily identified before they launch and openings in the opponent achieve a new clarity. The final stage is “playing with the mind”, which assumes the mystical state of being such as with Besouro Mangangá: the Capoeirista seems to possess the corpo fechado, extraordinary skills and healing that seem to defy rational explanation (144-150).

Batizado, translated as baptism, is an initiation given to all students of Capoeira. My school, Capoeira Brasil, celebrates batizado annually. This is a weeklong event of workshops with guest Mestres, instructors, and professors from around the world, nightly rodas, social meals and parties, and capped at the end of the week with the ceremony. During the batizado ceremony students are recognized for their training and knowledge and awarded the next cordo, a cord similar to the belt systems in Asian martial arts. Oftentimes the beginning student will receive their nickname during their first batizado. The ritual and axé of the roda are only amplified with the presence of these highly recognized Mestres. Knowledge flows freely, consistent with the oral tradition. Due to the advantages of modern society, Mestres now write books reflecting their expertise, and release musical CD’s of their own compositions as well as their interpretations of traditional songs. Students are encouraged to ask questions and engage in conversations with Mestres to learn and understood the philosophy, history, and culture of Capoeira.

Capoeira earned its freedom in Brazil through the efforts of Mestre Bimba, (Manuel dos Reis Machado) in the late 1920s. Mestre Bimba gained acceptance of Capoeira as a beneficial physical style and effective martial art. In 1937 Brazil’s president Getúlio Vargas released Capoeira from the imprisonment of the system and recognized it as a national sport. Shortly after this achievement Mestre Pastinha (Vincente Ferreria Pastinha) developed a style of Capoeira he named Angola, asserting the importance of the African roots and preserving teachings from the former slaves and old masters (Capoeira Brasil Los Angeles).


Mestre Pastinha

Mestre Pastinha, photo courtesy

Mestre Bimba

Mestre Bimba, photo courtesy












Capoeira gained popularity in the western world largely through the movie “Only the Strong” in 1993. In fact, Mestre Amen of Capoeira Batuque in Los Angeles was an important participant in the movie. My group, Capoeira Brasil, was founded by Mestres Boneco, Paulão Ceará and Paulinho Sabiá, who continue to promote the art and have established affiliated groups worldwide. Brazil released the movie “Besouro” in 2009 which has been subtitled and released in the United States.

CB Founders

Capoeira Brasil founders, photo coursey

Capoeira today is fortunate to exist in a free society and to be practiced around the globe. We still have access to students of the founders of Capoeira, although these resources are becoming more limited and scarce due to age. Folklorists and cultural anthropologists have expressed interest in Capoeira, however, to truly understand the art requires the researcher to experience the roda. One needs to endure sweat, the mental discipline and the magical experience of kneeling under the berimbau (Acordeon 6-7). Additionally, it is important to understand the Portuguese language, the history, the cultural traditions surrounding Capoeira’s birth, as well as the African roots, particularly relating to the spirituality of the orixás. A Capoeirista must play berimbau, atabaque, and pandeiro with proficiency and be able to lead others in song. These are requirements beyond knowledge of the movement and the game within the roda. A Capoeirista must also apply the ethics and qualities into their daily life: meeting challenges with the same vigor, dynamism, malandro and valente.


Mestre Acordeon

Mestre Acordeon, photo courtesy

In moments when life is presenting certain challenges and emotions surround sadness, anger, loneliness, frustration, anxiety, etc., I have found Capoeira to be a healthy release. It is well known physical activity promotes endorphins and increases energy. Additionally, Capoeira movements with their martial arts basis offer a viable release of aggression and frustration. These movements can also translate playfully and more dancelike if the mood calls for such. The music can also offer comfort. The lyrics of many songs are reminiscent of the suffering of the slaves and repressed in Brazil who found solace in the same cultural and artistic form of expression.

Mestre Amen

Mestre Amen and Mark Dacascos in “Only the Strong”, photo courtesy

The Afro-Brazilian art of Capoeira spans cultures, carries deep roots, an intense history of a fight for freedom and liberation; Capoeira incorporates the mysticism of the orixás and legendary mythological archetypes such as Besouro Mangangá; it can be a playful or violent interaction; it is rich in ritual and symbolism and is adaptable to any person who wishes to experience this diverse tradition.



Works Cited

Almeida, Bira. Capoeira: A Brazilian Art Form: History, Philosophy, and Practice. 2 edition. Berkeley, Calif: Blue Snake Books, 1993. Print.

Capoeira, Nestor. Capoeira: Roots of the Dance-Fight-Game. Berkeley, Calif: Blue Snake Books, 2002. Print.

Talmon-Chvaicer, Maya. The Hidden History of Capoeira: A Collision of Cultures in the Brazilian Battle Dance. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2007. Print.

“The History of Capoeira.” Capoeira Brasil Los Angeles – Mestre Boneco. Web. 5 July 2017.

“Legend of Besouro Mangangá | San Francisco Capoeira.” Web. 4 July 2017.



Tantric Buddhism and BDSM: Parallel Pathways to Liberation

This entry is my research paper for last quarter’s Buddhist Traditions course at Pacifica Graduate Institute.  This paper reflects a snippet of a personal journey of self-discovery.  I am inspired and enthusiastic to continue exploration, research, and academic writing in this realm.

kunda9Tantric Buddhism and BDSM: Parallel Pathways to Liberation

Relationships between men and women continue to be an ongoing study in western culture, especially as gender roles and identities and connections with each other has seemingly become increasingly blurred. Tantric Buddhism, which originated around the 11th and 12th centuries in India, rooted its foundation in the concept of female reverence and the important role female power and knowledge played in the overall attainment of enlightenment. While commonly perceived with highly negative connotations, the true power exchange dynamic existing in BDSM (bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, sadism/masochism) parallels many of the Tantric Buddhism notions involving respect, communication, trust, and vulnerability in order to achieve spiritual enlightenment, bliss, and ecstasy. While many gender dynamics exist in today’s realms of BDSM and Tantric Buddhism, this paper will focus on male-female relationships for the ease of language.

Tantric Buddhism gained immense cultural popularity during the Pala period of India. This sect of Buddhism was not limited to any particular caste system, nor was it isolated to a specific gender. This practice embraced people from all classes and levels of education from elite to ordinary villagers (Shaw 22). Tantric Buddhism sets itself apart from other spiritual practices of the time in its focus on the reverence of women and the understanding that spiritual enlightenment is to be achieved by embracing the feminine for guidance and worship. Tantric Buddhism holds reverence for the divine feminine creative powers (Shaw 32). The belief is that it essentially was senseless to exclude the female representation of the Buddha since bodies are both male and female and Buddhahood is attainable in the present life and in the present body (Shaw 27).

Tantric Buddhism, as with other sects of Buddhism, aims to achieve spiritual enlightenment. Distinguishing Tantric practice, however, is the emphasis on bliss and ecstasy as a means to achieve this. The body is a vehicle for attaining a blissful state for the mind. Tantric Buddhism is unique in its acceptance of the body and the senses as sources of knowledge and power (Shaw 140) rather than reasons behind suffering and shame.

DaikiniWhile distinguished in its own right, Tantric Buddhism borrows from Shaktism, or goddess-worship, is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism, and gained insight from Madhyamahaka, Yogacara, and Tathagatagarbhaj with the ideals of altruistic motivation and dedication to compassionate service (Shaw 23). This spiritual approach drew value from all Indian religious practices, such as the Vedic rituals, the mysticism of the Upanishads, and Yogic practices (31).

Female Tantric figures are prominent in the Tantric texts and imagery. In art, these women are oftentimes depicted dancing or flying through the sky; hair flowing loosely; adorned with skull and bone jewelry; sometimes hunting; sometimes their skin color is red or blue in hue. This imagery serves to demonstrate the free, independent, untamed qualities of the Tantric woman. One prominent female Buddha is Vajrayogini with her blood red skin, wildly loose black hair, dancing sometimes on the skulls of corpses, sometimes soaring in the sky, and drinking ambrosia from a cup made from a skull (Shaw 28). She is free, unashamed, reveling in her power, fierceness and independence.

Various poems and stories exist in the Tantric scriptures describing women hunting and flying and traversing liberally. “Tantric texts articulate a profound and appreciative metaphysical understanding of female embodiment” (Shaw 35). There are terms to describe these divine feminine creatures: Yogini, a practitioner in Yoga, the ritual arts and a deity with magical powers; dakini, also known as “skywalker” for her ability to fly which serves as a metaphor highlighting her spiritual ecstasy and freedom; duti, the female messengers of both the mundane and trans-worldly realms; and the vira or heroine who has deviated from conventional practices in order to traverse the challenging path of Tantric Buddhism (Shaw 38-39).

Red DaikiniThe female figures are independent and proud yet when they are enjoined with masculinity they achieve the roles of teachers, spiritual allies, and mystical companions. Their male partners, rather than being portrayed as dominators or suppressors, are lovers, supplicants, and spiritual companions (Shaw 37).

Tantric Buddhism rests in the foundational knowledge that women are essential to achieving spiritual enlightenment. Tantric women gurus have the ability to achieve enlightenment on their own. They are strong, independent, aware of their power and revel in their power. They are “proud of their strength, delight in shrewdish behavior, and derive pleasure from the fact they are untamable” (Shaw 54-55).

The goal of achieving bliss and the importance of honoring the feminine as a balance between energies are strong parallels in the philosophies of BDSM. “Both Tantra and BDSM are erotic arts of consciousness.” Both employ sex techniques, focus on stimulating the senses, are consensual between practitioners, raise erotic energy and “encourage personal freedom, individuality and imagination” (Carrellas 10). Sensory experiences are not a source of suffering, but rather a source of bliss (Shaw 93).

Bliss and ecstasy, used somewhat interchangeably in this paper, may be described as a soulful happiness; a metaphysical experience; the feeling of connecting with the sacred and the divine. Carrellas offers guidelines for attaining this state: stay in the moment, don’t try so hard, release expectations and judgments, surrender, and be present and conscientious (21).

The relationships between practitioners of both Tantra Buddhism and BDSM hold similarities. Tantra emphasizes predominately reverence to the woman, which can be expressed in various ways beyond the ritual: cooking for her, serving her, or massaging her feet. BDSM coins this relationship as a Domme/submissive paralleling the female Guru/male disciple dynamic. However, existing in BDSM very commonly is the Interracial Alchemy Union_Close Your EyesDominant/submissive embodying a male Dominant and female submissive. These terms, however, may be misleading to a non-practitioner for they do not denote a weakness or an inferiority on the part of the submissive. In fact, it is quite the opposite, as the submissive maintains the control of boundaries and limits; without the trust of the Dom(me), there can be no involvement.

Tantric Buddhism offers the illusion that women are in the dominant position. Shaw elaborates that this “surface imbalance helped to ensure the deeper harmony of the sexes”. It is as though men needed to be pushed farther away from the extreme of their egocentricity in order to embrace the role and meaning of women in the dynamic in order to achieve balance. This relationship did not focus on the dominance of either gender, but rather the union of masculine and feminine in the shared goal of spiritual enlightenment (72).

Both practices depend on intimacy and respect unconditionally. In Tantric practice violation of demonstrating respect resulted in severe consequences. Intimacy is critical for the attainment of bliss and enlightenment. Disciples were encouraged to take care in selecting their gurus. She should demonstrate freedom, be free from shame and fear, rejoice in her femininity, be adventurous, and speak her truth. Pairings were also based on characteristics such as body types, behavioral patterns and psychological traits (Shaw 54). This selection process most definitely parallels BDSM relationships, much like dating in the conventional sense. Intimacy and the willingness to please and serve require certain compatibilities and attraction. A healthy and true BDSM relationship maintains the utmost respect and substantial communication between partners.

As previously mentioned, the body is embraced as a vehicle for attaining bliss, ecstasy and enlightenment, which incorporates erotic sexual acts, although not necessarily dependent on them. Again, this holds true for both Tantric practice and BDSM. BDSM acknowledges and accepts an endless array of “fetishes” and continually stresses the release of shame and judgment with the understanding that partners are in consensual agreement. These fetishes serve as forms of worship, recognizing the divinity in your partner, as well as simply a means to achieve a state of ecstasy. Sexual pleasure is an intimate offering and the employment of fetishes requires understanding and control.

The main elements in sexual connection with the goal of ecstasy are to transcend time, become egoless, and to be in your natural state (Carrellas 18). Passion and pleasure are important, but not ignorance and lust. Detachment from the ego is critical, and intimacy exists (Shaw 168-169).

largeThe acts between partners have been called “rituals” in Tantric practice and “play sessions” in BDSM. While the success of attaining spiritual enlightenment encompasses interaction in daily life and an overall relationship, rituals and sessions are important opportunities to further the shared goals.

Both practices offer the exercise of eye-gazing. Specifically looking at the non-dominant eye (the left eye for a right-handed person for instance) is to look into the gateway of the soul (Carrellas 3). Eye-gazing is an important step in connecting and a tool in the development of trust. Another technique is touching a hand over the partner’s heart, connecting the heart chakra. “We build energy in BDSM in the same ways we build energy in Tantra. It’s a dance of the heart/upper chakra energy with genital/lower chakra energy” (Carrellas 210).

Once trust is established the disciple or submissive can work towards surrendering. It is critical for the Guru or Dominant to know their partner; to be aware of their body language; to have an understanding of their fears, curiosities, traumas, and desires; to be present and relaxed with a quiet mind. This keeps the disciple/submissive on “the edge” (Carrellas 210). Trust also develops in that if the Guru/Dominant takes their partner too far in the experience that they possess the recognition, ability and desire to recover their disciple/submissive. Oftentimes this is demonstrated in the practice of “aftercare” within BDSM, offering affection, compassion and nurturing behavior.

BDSM employs a variety of props – again, based upon the preferences and curiosities of the practitioners – that may likely have been utilized in ancient Tantric practices as well. Simple tools include bondage items and blindfolds. The idea behind these items is to deprive certain senses in order for others to become heightened, thus enhancing the blissful experience and ability to surrender. If the disciple/submissive is blindfolded, other senses such as smell and sound and touch increase, cultivating the ability to experience pleasure, the release of endorphines, quiet the mind, and surrender to the experience and the moment. These rituals or sessions may or may not involve genital stimulation. Attaining this blissful state may be induced by the simple caress of a feather on the skin, or the warmth of candle wax, or the scent of something sweet.

11093028_836500793089975_1902923699_nBDSM calls this state of ecstasy “subspace”. Buddhism terms this as achieving emptiness and utilizes the term mahamudra. This space is natural, relaxed, loose, and clarity is achieved. The mahamudra “opens the door to a realm of magical fluidity” creating a state of awareness where “anything is possible” (Shaw 95) and realizations can be made like “a fresh wind sweeping through an empty sky” (87).

Particularly in contemporary western societies, feelings of shame and judgment are prevalent surrounding sex, desire, and pleasure. These are age-old challenges, it seems, as demonstrated in the emergence of Tantra Buddhism as early as the 11th century CE. The roles of men and women and the interactions between the genders have notably been unbalanced and obscured. The most successful female submissives in BDSM relationship dynamics are powerful, independent women (or men) who choose to relinquish control and offer her submission to her Dominant for the achievement of ecstasy, fulfillment and ultimately a modernized form of spiritual enlightenment. While on the surface the Dominant appears to be in complete control, in reality this power exchange involves the submissive dictating the interactions with regards to boundaries and the amount of control she releases. Once this is established the Dominant can fulfill his role as a guide, a mentor, an edge-pusher. It becomes his enjoyed position to learn her boundaries, understand her deeply and intensely in the intellectual, emotional and physical senses in order to push her for growth.

In the primal sense, women desire the opportunity to fill this type of submission. The more independent she is in her everyday life, the more she craves embracing her femininity; a Dominant man feeds this craving for her. The Dominant/submissive dynamic speaks to a type of goddess worship paralleling the reverence offered to the female gurus in Tantric Buddhist practices. Shaw quotes from the Cittavisuddhiprakarana: “Love, enjoyed by the ignorant, becomes bondage. That very same love, tasted by one with understanding, brings liberation. Enjoy all the pleasures of love fearlessly for the sake of liberation” (140).



Works Cited

Carrellas, Barbara, and Annie Sprinkle. Urban Tantra: Sacred Sex for the Twenty-First Century. Berkeley, Calif: Celestial Arts, 2007. Print.

Shaw, Miranda. Passionate Enlightenment. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995. Print.


The Sorceresses of Merlin

Selena Madden

Evans Lansing Smith, Ph.D.

MS 502: Arthurian Romances of the Holy Grail

Spring 2016


The Sorceresses of Merlin

There have been numerous variations and intertwining stories relating to King Arthur, Camelot, Excalibur, and Merlin. The women involved in the stories, particularly the “fay”, have been referred to as sorceresses, apprentices of Merlin, or more literally interpreted simply as women of superior knowledge. These women include the Lady of the Lake and the Lady of Avalon. Not only did these figures potentially serve as inspiration to women of the time, they may very well be representative of the Druidic view of women’s roles in an otherwise male dominated world.

The Lady of the Lake and the Lady of Avalon not only held a relevant role in the Arthurian Legends but offer a representation of the Druidic society, particularly with their connection to the mythological city of Avalon. While scholars argue over the historic significance between the Druids and Arthurian Legend, such a connection cannot fully be ignored historically and in regard to modern day musings and imagination. Tolstoy notes that the character Merlin originated as Myrddin, a sixth century historical figure “famed for his prophetic powers”; a poem composed ca. 930 CE entitled Armes Prydein is translated with parallel terms “Merlin foretells” and “the druids foretell” indicating that Merlin was a Druid (84).

In considering the Druidesses, the Lady of the Lake and the Lady of Avalon, it is relevant to understand Merlin’s teachings and his methods for acquiring such female apprentices. Modern day depictions of Merlin as elderly and with a pointy hat are not entirely accurate according to the Arthurian texts. Merlin was also not so much a wizard as a prophet, though capable of imparting his great skills and knowledge.   In fact, some interpret Merlin as having been born a demon, fatherless or a beguiling son of the devil (Berthelot 55). This darker and more sinister reputation may stem from his methods involving his female apprentices, as Merlin only agreed (and not always) to teach his magic and his prophetic skills to virgin women in exchange for their virginity. Criticized for his tactics, it has been argued that these women were never deceived but in fact were fully aware of the arrangement requirements and oftentimes proactively sought him out (Berthelot 72).

These types of situations commonly caused rivalry and jealousy between Merlin’s women, including the two most prominent women of his tale, the Lady of the Lake and the Lady of Avalon.

Both women have been known by various names, depending on the particular tale and translation. The Lady of the Lake has been known as Niniene, Niviene, and Viviene, among others.   The Lady of Avalon is most commonly named Morgan le Fay, Morgana, or Morgaine.

Morgan le Fay is said to be Arthur’s half sister who was sent to a nunnery during her youth, being too young to marry, and manages to become accomplished at the art of necromancy (Berthelot 61). Her character tends to veer into two different directions: on the one hand she is depicted as somewhat innocent and seduced by the lustful Merlin and is a healer from Avalon; while on the other, she is portrayed as unscrupulous, deceitful, and a selfishly ambitious seductress (Berthelot 59). It is possible that her negative portrayal is a result of the jealousy infused by Merlin’s involvement with Viviene, the Lady of the Lake. According to Fries, however, this negative depiction of Morgan is possibly a result of the male outlook of the time and their inability or unwillingness to imagine powerful women in positive terms (5).

Fries quotes Morgan from Taliesin in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini as being “skilled in the healing arts… knows an art by which to change her shape, and to cleave the air on new wings like Daedalus… and she has taught mathematics to her sisters” (1). Chrétien de Troyes also depicts her as a healer and a much more positive figure. She is beautiful, she is a “mistress of Avalon” (Fries 2); overall she is depicted as an archetypal heroine, capable, intelligent, discerning, and with much to contribute to her family and to her community. Geoffrey of Monmouth writes of her act of saving King Arthur, after receiving serious wounds by Mordred.

Yet her identity takes a dramatic shift into very much an anti-hero, using her healing powers to create illness, engaging in illicit sex and acts of deception. Later stories, such as in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, describe her acts against King Arthur and Guinevere, creating them as enemies. Morgan takes on illicit lovers, including Merlin and Accolon, and lusts after Lancelot. Malory writes of her act of creating a battle between Accolon and Arthur, where she presents a false Excalibur to Arthur with the intention of securing Accolon’s victory.

The Lady of the Lake, Viviene, is written to be Merlin’s true love and the sorceress who bestowed the enchanted sword Excalibur to King Arthur, thus securing his kingship. She also foiled Morgan’s trickery by revealing the true Excalibur to Arthur during his battle with Accolon. Viviene is most famous for her “Beguiling of Merlin”: Because of Merlin’s prophetic skills, he foresees her betrayal to him, yet by the very nature of prophecy there is no avoiding what is to come. He proceeds to teach her his secrets – more secrets than he had bestowed upon Morgan, which results in jealousy from Morgan – only to have Viviene entrap him in a dream-like state equivalent to death by stealing his magic and using it against him.

While Mallory offers this heroic, justice-seeking depiction of Viviene based on her actions involving Arthur and Excalibur, Tennyson paints her as a deceitful villainess who ensnares Merlin with this enchantment. As we saw with Morgan, the question arises as to whether or not this shift in character is a result of the male-dominated perspective of the age.

These female sorceresses are multi-faceted and inspiring. Berthelot compares Viviene to Diana the Huntress of Roman Mythology and to a Celtic goddess of the sea (60). Marion Zimmer-Bradley focused her popular fictional book The Mists of Avalon on the Arthurian Legend as told from the perspective of the women and continued with additional books to contribute to a series; the Mists of Avalon was also created into a TV mini-series due to its popularity. Zimmer-Bradley writes of the alluring isle of Avalon and the history of the Druids as they relate to these women and to Merlin.

Sorcery, magic and alchemy are mysterious and intriguing. They are the basic nature of the Avalon characters.   Modern day Paganism and Wicca derive much of their practice and spirituality from these influences, naturally stemmed from ancient Druidic rituals, as much as we know.

Berresford Ellis elaborates that the word magi came to be applied to the Druids by the monk Muirchú in the 17th century Life of St. Patrick; other terms applied were magician and magus. These terms also stemmed from the priests of ancient Persia and the priests of Zoroastrianism, ultimately referring to the power members of these castes held over supernatural forces: Magic. Quoting Pliny: “Even today Britain is still spell bound by magic, and performs its rites with so much ritual that she might almost seem to be the source of Persian customs” (247).

The Druids did in fact hold great influence and power ca. first century Britain. According to Manda Scott, author of Boudica in the TV documentary Warrior Women the “Druids were the Shamanic base for the early Britains… [They were the] connection between the people and the gods of the land”. During the Roman invasion, the Roman leaders were very aware of the importance of conquering the Druids in order to fully establish their claim and power over the British and Welsh populations.

The Celtic civilization as a whole viewed women differently than their Roman and Greek counterparts; therefore the existence and relevance of women in Druidic society has been confirmed by Celtic sources (Berresford Ellis 91). Unlike Roman and Greek civilizations, Celtic women could be head of household and hold political office, as has been confirmed by the ruler of the Iceni, Boudica. Berresford Ellis suggests the argument that Boudica may have been a Druidic priestess (92). The Celts, women included, were warriors and female warrior queens appear in many stories (Berresford Ellis 92), verifying their validity, particularly by those such as the Greek historians Tacitus and Plutarch (ca. 46-120 CE).

Druidic women held an array of skills and powers. Not only capable warriors and leaders, they were said to hold the sight of prophecy, of healing, and were priestesses to the pantheon of gods and goddesses (Fig 1). To view Morgan and Viviene as ladies of Avalon, the mystical land connected with the deities and magic, does not require much stretch of the imagination. In fact, a Welsh tale called Mabinogion contains a story of a warrior at King Arthur’s court who encounters a mysterious Druidess while on a quest. The Druidess aids the warrior in claiming the Lady of the Fountain as his wife; consider the Lady of the Lake as a succeeding water spirit of Druidic origin (Berresford Ellis 135).


Fig 1: Druid Sketch by Chadwick J. Coleman

However, some scholars critique this idea, such as C.F. Keary who critiques Studies in Arthurian Legends by John Rhŷs. Rhŷs writes of the undeniable connection between the Celtic mythologies with Arthurian Legend. Keary dismisses much of this writing as more of a mythological account than a historical one (130). However, by his own admission, mythologies are stories of the people of the time and can certainly offer insight into the historical accounts (130).

Druidic lore would be incomplete without discussion of Stonehenge, with whom Merlin is said to have associations. Tolstoy argues in The Quest for Merlin that Stonehenge is a “Sacred Centre of Britain and was traditionally connected with Merlin,” likely as the Shamanic type of guardian (121). Stonehenge is a basis for the practice of Druidism, later including other variations of Pagan and Wiccan traditions and spiritual practices. While still regarded as an archaeological mystery, modern day spiritual practitioners assert feeling a sense of awe and power and magic stemming from this spectacular monument. From an engineering standpoint, the monument is awe-inspiring, and the terrain undoubtedly beautiful. (Fig 2)


Fig 2: Stonehenge Courtsey English Heritage UK

Arthurian Legend as well as Druidism have inspired many works of art. Edward Burne-Jones created a famous portrayal of the “Beguiling of Merlin” as Viviene uses his own magical knowledge against him and draws him into an eternal sleep (Fig 3). As mentioned previously, the depiction of Merlin did not originate as the elderly, pointy-hat wearing wizard, but more akin to Burne-Jones’ imagery of a younger and more alluring man. In this image Viviene is draped in beautifully elegant folds of fabric while holding what may be the Book of Spells containing magical secrets. The coils in her hair may be likened to the snakes of Medusa or perhaps an association with the seduction of Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Merlin appears entranced and enveloped in the tree, perhaps even floating slightly as the spell is cast over him.


Fig 3: Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones

This Pre-Raphaelite piece was not the only of its kind; many pre-Raphaelite artists were drawn to the allure and romanticism of the Arthurian Legends with their stories of love, chivalry, betrayal, magic, and nobility. With a focus on classical poses and elegance, the Arthurian Legends provided an alluring subject matter. John William Waterhouse is another such artist enraptured with the Pre-Raphaelite style, although he lived and worked decades after the Pre-Raphaelite movement, with art focusing on Greek mythology and Arthurian Legend. His piece entitled The Magic Circle depicts a sorceress. Imagination offers the possibility that this sorceress is Morgan le Fay or Viviene or another Druid priestess of Avalon. The imagery is powerful with the unnatural upward spiral of the cauldron smoke; the wand drawing the circle of protection around her; a live snake coiled around her neck; the determined expression; her wild hair and her bare feet; and the crow or raven, animal messengers between the realms (Fig 4).

The Sorceresses of the Arthurian Legends, of Avalon, of Merlin are complicated, multi-faceted figures of independence, power, and intrigue. Their influence has spanned generations and cultures, and continue to offer inspiration to feminism as well as romanticism. There is no doubt as to their contribution to the Arthurian Legends in that the stories would be severely lacking without their presence. Evidence suggests the influence they held over the women of the ages relating to independence and authority. The association with Druidic, Pagan, and Wiccan practices is ever-present with reverence offered to the divine qualities of these women. Women of the modern era indeed carry forth the dynamic qualities inspired by these Sorceresses.


Fig 4: The Magic Circle by John William Waterhouse

Works Cited

Baughan, Denver Ewing. “The Role of Morgan Le Fay in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” ELH 17.No. 4 (1950): 241–251. Print.

Berresford Ellis, Peter. The Druids. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994. Print.

Berthelot, Anne. “Merlin and the Ladies of the Lake.” Arthuriana Vol. 10, No. 1.Essays on Merlin (2000): 55–81. Print.

Bradley, Marion Zimmer. The Mists of Avalon. 1st edition. New York: Del Rey, 1984. Print.

Burne-Jones, Edward. Beguiling of Merlin. 1872-1877. Oil on canvas. National Museums Liverpool, UK.

Coleman, Chadwick J. Druids. 2012. Sketch. Private collection.

Fries, Maureen. “From The Lady to The Tramp: The Decline of Morgan Le Fay in Medieval Romance.” Arthuriana Vol. 4, No. 1.Spring 1994 1–18. Print.

“Geoffrey of Monmouth, Book VII Chapter III, The Prophecy of Merlin.” N.p., n.d. Web. 18 June 2016.

Holbrook, S.E. “Nymue, the Chief Lady of the Lake, in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur.” Speculum 53.No. 4 (1978): 761–777. Print.

Keary, C.F. “Review of Studies in the Arthurian Legend by John Rhŷs.” The English Historical Review 7.25 (1892): 130–136. Print.

Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte D’arthur. New edition. Ware, Hertfordshire England: Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1997. Print.

McCarthy, Terence. “Did Morgan Le Fay Have a Lover?” Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature 60.No. 2 (1991): 284–289. Print.

“Merlin – Merlin’s Prophecies – Crystalinks.” N.p., n.d. Web. 18 June 2016.

“Prophecies of Merlin, Predictions by Myrddin.” N.p., n.d. Web. 18 June 2016.

“Swords and Sorceresses: The Chivalry of Malory’s Nyneve – 27870429.pdf.” Web. 19 June 2016.

Unknown. Stonehenge. N.D. Photograph.

“Warrior Women.” Boudica. Discovery Channel, 2003. TV Series.

Waterhouse, John William. The Magic Circle. 1886. Oil on canvas. Tate Britain, London, UK.


Kali: Goddess of Destruction as a Guide for Transformation


Goddess Kali_Glebstock

Photo courtesy Glebstock

Kali. The Dark Goddess. The Destroyer. The Creator. The Fierce One. She stares with glowing red eyes. Between her lips sharp fangs gleam and her long tongue protrudes. A garland of skulls decorate her neck. Serpents entwine her arms. Within her left two hands she holds a menacing sword and a severed head while her two right arms hold ritual offerings and the demonstrate the gesture “Fear Not” (Kripal 153).

Kali has been known to evoke a fierceness, a wildness, and a frenzied persona. It is this image that most people know her by, which tends to elicit fear and misunderstanding. While a goddess not to be underestimated or easily ignored there is another perspective to Kali: a compassionate, nurturing mother figure who embraces her children to her breast.

This paper aims to demonstrate the duality of Kali, particularly relating to her destructive abilities as a means to act as a guide through a period of transformation. Destruction is typically followed by creation and transformation is inherent during this process. Whether welcomed or not, this process occurs without prejudice and to seek guidance from the Goddess of Destruction herself aims to ensure the best possible outcome.

Kali is a consort of Shiva and is often depicted in imagery as standing upon his body. She is his feminine counterpart, yet childless by him. She is also an aspect of Durga, a warrior goddess, who sprang from Durga’s third eye as an angry combatant when needed in battle (Kempton 118). In fact, this is often when Kali arrives: as a destructively creative force harnessing the necessary power to obliterate that which no longer serves us but leaves the parts that comprise who we are. By standing atop Shiva she demonstrates that she is “the dynamic force in the universe, the power that churns the stillness of the void” (Kempton 119).


Photo courtesy Muktinath

Zimmer states:

“…four hands that hold the symbols not of abundance but of death, renunciation, and the spiritual path of devotion. These are the noose (the lasso that catches and strangles the victim), the iron hook (which drags the victim to his doom), the rosary, and the textbook of prayer” (212).”

The “victim” is typically interpreted as the ego, uncontrollable desires or other aspects that destroy our true selves.

It may seem the idea of destruction is initially one that holds negative connotation. However, creation and destruction “are one and the same” (Zimmer 212). With this idea Kali is an ultimate example of duality: life and death; light and shadow; love and anger. Through her darkness, her anger and her destruction allows for the ability to destroy the ego and all that prevents us from achieving our “ultimate one-ness” (Kempton 142).

A story within the Devi Mahatmya tells of Durga, the warrior goddess, who is fighting the demons Chanda and Munda who threaten civilization. At a key time during this battle Kali emerges from Durga’s third eye as a frenzied slayer, swinging her sword fiercely. Her sword represents “physical extermination and spiritual decision” (Zimmer 214). She roars and is positively and undeniably frightening. As she slays the demons she catches them in her fangs and chomps them. She then confronts the demon chief Raktabija who poses a new challenge: as his blood hits the ground it transforms into warriors. Kali counter-attacks this by using her long tongue to lick up the drops of blood before they reach the ground (Kempton 118).

Kripal writes in Biting the Tongue of the Tantra Tradition a powerful elaboration of Kali’s significance in this story:

“Durga simply commands Kali to open her mouth wide and gulp down the drops as Durga herself slays the demon: ‘Stricken with many weapons, the great demon Raktabija fell to the ground bloodless’. The male demon’s vital forces were thus consumed by a devouring female … Her [Kali’s] terrible violence has been harnessed for the good of the world. She still retains her dark bloodthirsty nature, but her darkness is now an angry aspect of the Great Goddess. Kali and her tongue have entered the Hindu fold – if only as an incarnation of fury and as a consumer of demonic blood and semen.”

In this story the blood of Raktabija represents “the uncontrollable desires that agitate our minds” (Kempton 119). Kali’s action of licking up the drops of blood with her tongue symbolizes the action of eating up “desires and thoughts so that the luminosity of our essential awareness can reveal itself” (Kempton 119).

Kali celebrates this victory against the demons by entering into a frenzied dance on the world, uncontrollable, wild, and with disregard to the damage she is causing. “… all creation began to shake, and the whole of existence was threatened with destruction” (Cotterell and Storm 376). Fearing the devastation of civilization and the world, Shiva threw himself under her feet so that her steps would impact only him. She finally becomes aware of her actions and consequences and finds the ability to stop herself.

This is the aspect that is feared, understandably so. It is also this aspect that gives cause to – women in particular – invoke the energies of Kali. Both history and modernity demonstrate a repression of women in various forms. Women aim to harness their “inner Kali” as a way to “stand up for herself, to discover her inner fierceness, or to express the outrageous side of her sexuality” (Kempton 130). As such, women who have been abused sexually, physically or experienced any one of many forms of trauma turn to the energies of Kali to find strength, to connect with who they are, and to eliminate the negative forces that repress and victimize them.

Releasing these harmful energies and connecting with power is a terrifying process. This is what Kali represents and what she absorbs; her dark skin is evident of this absorption and her frenzy is an intoxication of power. This personification makes Kali the ultimate mother. Her children suffer through this process of harsh nurture, but they know the source and realize the perceived act of cruelty comes with a healthy outcome (Cotterrel, Storm 161). Her tactics are forceful and fierce but they come from love and are “in service of the heart” (Kempton 141). Kali is the “Divine Mother”, bringing forth samsara, and destroying the world – ego, pain, trauma, etc. – in the end (Hopkins 127).


Photo courtesy Izaskun

Reasons to invoke Kali are not only limited to releasing traumatic experiences: one may invoke Kali in order to undergo any transformation; to release the limitations perceived within oneself; inspire kundalini energy to manifest through the chakras; discover truth; release ego; explore the mysteries of life and death; reach enlightenment; purify and strengthen the heart; transcend in ecstasy (Kempton 144). Kinsley states there is “no attempt to soften the Goddess. She is beautiful but delights in battle and bloodlust… [She is] invincibly powerful and accomplished” (493). “Battle and bloodlust” clearly represent all that plagues us as humans. In fact, the entire manifestation of the Great Goddess and her various aspects such as Kali, Parvati, Saraswati, etc., act as a parallel representation to the many aspects that make us human.

Kempton writes “Durga gives the strength to begin and support the process of change, but Kali has the force to sweep away old structures” (126). In a personal reflection, I found change was almost forcing itself upon me – unable to be denied or repressed or ignored in any manner. While at one time intimidated by Kali due to misunderstanding and fear of the goddess’ strength and meaning, I have since changed my perspective and adopted the energies of Kali as a powerful and knowing guide through this process of change and transformation. I considered that if this change was occur and with it accompanied anger, sadness, etc. what better guide could I seek than the ultimate goddess of creation, destruction, and rebirth?

“When Kali is at work, you can trust her to show you what is truly indestructible, both in you and in your world. That’s why we need her. You don’t know what love is until you’ve felt the depth and fierceness of Kali’s love” (Kempton 126).

Kali forces the question “who am I?” and to answer this question requires cutting to the bare bone, approaching oneself with passion, releasing false ideas, and facing our shadows.

The darkness to Kali has most certainly been misused and misinterpreted. She has become the icon of the “left-handed path” within Hindu Traditions who practice black magic, excessive alcohol and drug use, aim to invoke a dark power, and indulge in practices considered “unclean” within the Hindu cultures. The left-handed path focuses on the shadow side, and as with many activities within humanity, it is important to find balance; the shadow side is not to be ignored just as it is not to be reveled in.


Photo courtesy Heile

When a repressed feminine energy suddenly finds power and assertion the result can be overwhelming and counter-productive. It has been noted by Kempton that there is an inherent anger within women on a cellular level from the history of repression (133).

The shadow side of harnessing feminine power can ignite anger and aggression. This can manifest itself in physical illness, accidents, and destroy the love for us and from us (Kempton 132). This action is represented when Kali dances in an uncontrolled frenzy, causing devastation. How do we then avoid the negative aspects? How do we transform from the “wounded feminine” into a healthy balance of strength, power, and nurture? I assert that to accomplish this requires not suppressing our shadow side, but facing it with courage.

Kempton offers a poem from a neofeminist website with an informed analysis:

“I am the Bitch from Hell. I think you know me well. I am the dark goddess. Kali, Hecate, Lilith, Morrigan, Ereshigal. The dark goddess lives in us all. Often suppressed and denied, she will eventually leak out in hostility and sarcasm, with sly cutting digs, nagging gossip, and putdowns…” (133-134).

Kinsley asserts that there is “no attempt to soften the Goddess.” She is beautiful but delights in battle and bloodlust. She is “invincibly powerful and accomplished [and] at home pulverizing demons” (493). The beauty and nurture, and power and violence describe an interesting duality.

“… her motherly qualities… emphasizes her fierce qualities. The Goddess as the fierce mother expresses a coincidence of opposites. This aspect of her character, it is argued, expresses the ambiguities inherent in human existence itself” (Kinsley 489).

It should come as no surprise that the concept of Goddess carries with her several personas; this demonstrates a reflection of the human feminine characteristics.

“The use of feminine symbolism does not seem to guarantee anything about the role and status of women, though it does seem to correlate with a positive evaluation of whatever is feminine in a given religious symbol system” (Gross 271).

My own personal reflection intimately explores my own concept of what it is to be feminine, the role of my female warrior, and the role of my nurturer. I have been identified as an independent and strong woman and I accept this with gratitude and pride. Yet how does this persona fit in the world in which we live, particularly in my romantic relationships? This seems to be the question presented to me recently. It was Kali who seemed most appropriate and capable as my inspiration in this resulting transformation.


Photo courtesy Nosve

In my past I have felt more of a spiritual alignment with Durga, who in contrast, is gentler than Kali, although still a warrior goddess not to be underestimated or disregarded. However, Durga’s strength in recent times surrounding life-changing situations and opportunities did not feel quite dramatic enough. As in the story, demons were threatening the world as I knew it and Kali was required to spring from Durga’s third eye to offer ferocious and formidable aid. Kali seemed to metamorphosis in my perspective due to where I am in my journey. Kali certainly is dramatic and offered to serve the purpose of stripping away all that no longer served me.

I mentioned previously that I felt intimidated by Kali and I realize now that I very much misunderstood her, which has commonly been the case with many others. After only a brief period of time involving meditations to Kali I have lost that sense of intimidation. I have equated Kali’s assistance as “ripping the bandaid off” of a situation rather than a slow, painful opening of a wound. Kali seems to offer a sense of calm in the face of adversity, which does seem to contradict the image of the frenzied and wild devourer of demons. In my perspective, a warrior maintains a centered and stable core regardless of how wild the actions may be. This core represents the true Self, the answer to “who am I?” It is the core that maintains focus and perseverance, although the actions may appear out of control.

Change cannot be avoided; transformation will happen without regard to the individual’s desires. However, within the individual’s control is how to work through the process and the expansion of mind to learn and grow. I have found with Kali’s influence, I have lost a certain amount of fear and hesitation regarding transformation – reminded of this by Kali’s hand gesture of “Fear Not.” To be open to change releases anxiety. I am allowed the space to observe and perceive and ultimately implement the change. Paradoxically, control stems from the release of control: When Kali slays demons wildly and seemingly uncontrollably, the result is control over the situation in the form of reclaiming control over civilization from the threat of the demons.

I am appreciative to have been shown the deeper meaning of destruction with the cycle of creation as a beneficial outcome. Kali demonstrates herself as the true Goddess in this regard, fiercely loving those who open themselves up to her with oftentimes harsh lessons, but ones that are in the better interest of the individual and subsequently humankind overall.


Photo courtesy Smite



Cotterell, Arthur, and Rachel Storm. The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology. London: Anness Publishing Ltd, 1999, 2010. Print.

Gross, Rita M. “Hindu Female Deities as a Resource for the Contemporary Rediscovery of the Goddess.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol 46, No 3 (Sept., 1978): 269-291. Oxford University Press. Web. 14 Dec. 2014.

Hopkins, Thomas J. The Hindu Religious Tradition. Belmont: Dickinson Publishing Company, 1971. Print.

Kempton, Sally. Awakening Shakti: The Transformative Power of the Goddesses of Yoga. Boulder: Sounds True, 2013. Print.

Kinsley, David. “The Portrait of the Goddess in the Devi-mahatmya.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol 46, No 4 (Dec., 1978): 489-506. Oxford University Press. Web. 14 Dec. 2014.

Kripal, Jeffrey J. “’Biting the Tongue’ of the Tantric Tradition.” History of Religions, Vol 34, No. 2 (Nov. 1994): 152-189. University of Chicago Press. Web. 14 Oct. 2014.

Zimmer, Heinrich (edited by Campbell, J). Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964. Print





Snakes and Transformation: Dreams and Spiritual Totem

I wrote this paper during my first quarter at Pacifica Graduate Institute for the Dreams, Visions, and Myths course taught by Dr. Jacqueline Feather.  This paper holds a significant amount of personal meaning to me; I have also included information relating to the significance of snakes in general within various cultures and belief systems.

Thank you for taking the time to read this and please feel free to ask any questions or offer comments!





Snakes and Transformation: Dreams and Spiritual Totem

 The Snake is a powerful personal spiritual totem and one that has held significance throughout various cultures and eras. In this paper I wish to share Snake’s meaning to me, how Snake has spoken to me in dreams and visions, my personal relationship with Snake, and how Snake has been viewed in history, religion, and myth.

My conscious relationship with Snake began when I was 17 years old. I was an actively performing bellydancer and I suddenly and inexplicably felt the urge to begin dancing with a snake. I knew nothing about snakes: about their handling, their care, or their temperament. I simply felt a calling from Snake. Fortunately I had a friend who had owned several snakes over many years who was more than willing to offer me practical guidance.

After some conversation and research Jasmine was gifted into my life.


Jasmine (Photo by Gregg Romeo)

Jasmine was a red-tailed boa constrictor at the age of six months when I acquired her. She was small and delicate with a very sweet temperament. Our goal in the beginning was to develop a rapport; to become comfortable with one another. I handled her as much as possible, regardless of whatever tasks I was performing around the house or out running errands. This enabled her to become acclimated to my movements; to learn how to hold onto me without fear of being dropped; and to allow me the opportunity to understand her movements, her fears and comfort level; and to overall become attuned to her.

Over a span of 17 years Jasmine and I performed countless stage shows, TV shows, parties, and private events. She was a natural performer. By this I mean she seemed to instinctively know when we were performing. Snakes detect their surroundings predominately by energy vibrations and scent. She seemed to know when the lights were on her and when an audience was present; I believe she also detected my own energies shift into performance mode and understood what this meant as far as her role in the situation.

My dance transformed. My style developed into writhing, smooth, sensual, snakey movements. When we performed, it was I who followed Jasmine’s lead. I saw people become enchanted. My ultimate delight was to aid those who had initially been afraid of snakes become intrigued, curious and fascinated. Inevitably after every performance, those once intimidated by snakes based on misunderstanding and certain religious influences, wanted to ask questions, learn about Jasmine, touch her, and take pictures with her.

Aside from being my dance partner, Jasmine represented a part of me. Wherever she lived was home and being somewhat of a gypsy spirit, “home” was a fluid concept at times. When I was in need of reflection or solitude, I would light candles and bring Jasmine out with me to meditate or to dance. Regardless of who was in my life or transitioned out, Jasmine was my companion.

Jasmine’s accidental death in 2012 was devastating for me. It was serendipitous this happened at a time of great transition and turmoil with events during my life: I had left one relationship outside of California to pursue another with someone I held to heart as my soulmate back in Los Angeles. I wondered if her death was a sign of doom in being united with the one I had longed for. I know losing her contributed to my feelings of floundering; of not feeling grounded and centered; incapable of handling the changes in my life in a healthy manner, regardless of how much I wanted to.

It took two years before I felt ready to find another snake companion, despite how un-centered I was without that energy. I found Lamia, a baby boa of perhaps three months old. It was during this time I experienced my first snake dream:


Baby Lamia (Artwork by Chadwick J. Coleman)

Lamia was in her cage, the cage that had formerly belonged to Jasmine. I was watching her and saw Jasmine in the cage with her. This perplexed me, knowing that Jasmine had passed away. I moved closer and saw that Jasmine was transparent and was indeed not visiting in the physical realm, but in an ethereal realm. When I awoke from the dream it was though Jasmine’s “voice” was telling me that she approved; that it was ok to “replace” her with this new baby boa.

Tragically, Lamia did not stay in my life more than a couple of months. I felt great responsibility for her death but was assured that baby snakes are very delicate and her manner of death was unfortunately not uncommon. It saddens me to say that she was a “blip” in my life, although I believe her presence had a great impact and in fact opened up my desire for snake energy again.



Shortly thereafter I found Sahara (April 2014), a two year old sunglow boa constrictor. Sahara has been in my life approximately one year now. It seems in keeping with the spirit of Snake and Snake’s meaning to me, Sahara has visited me in dreams as well as offered me real life challenges.

Her presence in my dreams began just shortly after a tumultuous break up with my previously referenced soulmate. In both dreams with Sahara she was attacking me and trying to bite me, even to the point of aggressively following me around as I tried to escape from her. In one dream she did in fact bite me on my right hand (the significance of this to be discussed later).

Within a month in real life she became highly aggressive to the point of striking her cage whenever I walked by and making it impossible for me to feel comfortable handling her. I must point out that shortly after obtaining Sahara we performed together successfully, following along the same path Jasmine had set forth. Sahara was sweet and docile and I did not understand why this sudden change had occurred, nor what to do about it.

Shamanic friends suggested she was highly affected by the final argument that ended my relationship and by my continued energies of sadness, anger, confusion, and hurt. Sahara, also, had developed a bond with my partner which was now lost. Having witnessed a change in my dog’s behavior – which by contrast is easier to read than reptilian behavior – by the same breakup and knowing how highly sensitive snakes are, this was not an impossibility.

Before I address the more complex energetic perspectives I wish to note that I asked for assistance from an exotic animal handler friend, who, in one session, successfully helped Sahara and me in rehabilitation. I realized the reason behind this was his energy was one of confidence and calmness; he was not afraid of being bitten; he was not influenced by the aftermath of said breakup; nor any other emotional or energetic factors. Once he showed Sahara there was a calm energy present to be with her – and helped me reduce my level of fear of her – we were quickly on the road to regaining our friendly connection.

In earth-based traditions and belief systems, snakes are regarded as offering healing and transformative energies. Snakes hold value in several traditions, notably Native American, Meso-American, Greek, India, Chinese, Egyptian, and Eastern. All traditions, with slight variations, share the significance of rebirth, resurrection, initiation, and wisdom.

Year of the Snake_FunkyFriendsFactory

Year of the Snake image courtesy

In Chinese astrology those born during Year of the Snake (myself included) are regarded as patient, wise, enigmatic, and intuitive, possessing compassion, clairvoyance, and charm. However, Chinese belief systems regard Snake People as needing to “learn lessons associated with forgiveness, superstitiousness and possessiveness.” (Andrews 360).

The Greeks associated strong beliefs in the snake’s powers of alchemy and healing. In alchemy they turned lead into gold. The god Asclepius became known as the god of healing with the snake and the dog as his two primary totems (perhaps an example of Joseph Campbell’s synchronicity). Hygieia, daughter of Asclepius, was also a goddess of health and hygiene and oftentimes depicted with the snake as her attribute. The snake has become associated with healing due to its ability to shed, thus renewing youth. Another Greek god, Hermes, carried a staff entwined by two snakes. This symbol carries over today as the popularly known symbol of medicine.

Hygeia & Asclepius_Oracle TV Shop

Hygeia & Ascleipus image courtesy

Hindu and Eastern traditions hold regard to the snake relating to sexual powers and the creative life force. The serpent fire, known as kundalini, lays coiled at the base of the spine in humans and as the person grows and develops, this energy releases up the spine, activating energy centers. This results in “opening new dimensions and levels of awareness, health, and creativity” (Andrews 360).

Native American healers used the venom of snakes in ceremony. Those undergoing this ceremony would be bitten several times and learned to transmute these poisons within their body. Those who survived ultimately experienced phenomenal healings.

When a snake sheds its skin, it is being reborn. The snake’s skin transforms into a milky color and its eyes cloud over. Mystics and shamans regarded the Snake as moving between the realms of life and death; as the eyes cleared the world was seen anew and from a new perspective (Andrews 361).

Snakes are also a primitive animal – survived since prehistoric times – with very basic instincts and a very simple brain. They maintain as close of contact with the earth as possible. They do not see very well, nor do they hear; rather they operate with incredibly keen senses of smell and the ability to detect the faintest of vibrations.

Snakes are rather delicate, in my opinion. Their spine runs the entire length of their bodies, consisting of thousands of tiny bones. When I handle a snake, I handle it quite gingerly, respecting their sensitive nature, sensitivity to touch, and delicate feel.

People often have the misperception that snakes are cold and slimy. They are, in fact, quite the opposite. Particularly constrictors, when healthy, are warm. Being cold-blooded creatures they respond to their environment, another indication of their overall sensitivity. Constrictors thrive in tropical environments and are more active when warm. They tend to hibernate when cold. They are dry and not slimy. In fact, their skin carries no oils. If a human were to brush their hand against dirt, residue would remain. Because a snake lacks oils, they do not pick up dirt, thus enabling them to slither their way through various wilderness terrain.

Lilith_John Collier

“Lilith” by John Collier

I approached my snake dreams from a Shamanic standpoint in order to gain understanding of their messages. I first considered the fear that arises from a striking snake. In real life I have been bitten twice in the past (by Jasmine when she mistakenly thought she was being fed). I recall how unnatural her speed seemed to be; certainly unnerving. In both instances she struck my hand, resulting in a constant flow of blood. I learned later from my exotic animal handler friend that snakes possess a certain component to their saliva that prevents the blood from clotting. I also went into a mild state of shock. Jasmine, in comparison, was quite harmless from other snakes, particularly larger constrictors or venomous breeds. Clearly I still maintained this fear in my dream of Sahara biting me.

In Shamanism there is a concept of dismemberment by animals relating to rebirth. In real life, this would be terrifying and likely to result in death. In the Shamanic dream realm, it can also be terrifying but the death is a needed one in order to result in rebirth. I compared the snake bite scenario to a type of animal dismemberment, a thought inspired by a Shamanic friend of mine. Considering the changes that were occurring in my life at the time and my connection with snake energy, this is not a stretch of the imagination.

The snake bite and Sahara’s pursuing me so aggressively could also suggest the need for a “wake up call” regarding my situation or circumstances in life. This requires realization, acknowledgement, and the willingness to be released from the paralyzing fear in order to implement and embrace needed change.

A website called suggests significance to the right hand being bitten. This website suggests conflict regarding making the “right” decision – perhaps a preoccupation “with acting in fairness or maintaining a healthy transparency in a relationship.”

The representation and concept of transformation cannot be emphasized enough. Andrews’ Animal Totems suggests that when Snake comes into your life you can look for a rebirth into new powers of creativity and wisdom. The kundalini approach reiterates activating sexual drive, which results in more energy and allows for an increased ability to recognize and apply intuition and insight.

Girl with Snake_Sasha Fantom

Artwork by Sasha Fantom

When an animal spirit or totem makes its presence known in one’s life, whether in the dream realm or the physical realm, Shamanism suggests observing the live animal. I have the fortune of having Snake with me in my home and we often spend time together as well as allowing me opportunity to observe her in her terrarium. In fact, since our “rehabilitation” session I have noticed an increased level of calmness and trust in both myself and in her behavior towards me. I do not think it coincidence to suggest that this calmness parallels my process of healing from the breakup and re-discovery/new discovery of myself.  Within this strength is one’s perception of the situation.

A poem by Susan Kinsolving from Snakes: An Anthology of Serpent Tales offers an eloquent duality of snake as far as perception:

“Both spinal and fluid, the movements are undulating and minacious: sidewinding, concertina, constriction, coil, and strike. As a child, I ran home from my favorite place to play, under willows by a stream, where suddenly to my horror one came weaving through the water. The only poison was its presence, but that proved to be venomous enough to my sanctuary. So serpents remain with me: assailants ominous, though unlikely, but molting in my mind, mythically provoking. Cobra, boa, rattler, viper, Egyptian asp… (Lewis, Plimpton 100).”

While my own process of transformation is far from complete, I can assert that I feel a re-connection with Snake energy; an energy that had been absent from my life for a period of time. Just as Snake demonstrates with the cycle of shedding, transformation will always occur. I believe the secret to healthily moving through transformation is to accept it and approach it without fear; to know one has the tools necessary to move through this process.

Works Cited

Andrews, Ted. Animal Speak: The Spiritual and Magical Powers of Creatures Great and Small. Woodbury: Llewellyn Publications, 2014. Print.

Lewis, Willee, George Plimpton. Snakes: An Anthology of Serpent Tales. New York: Willee Lewis, 2003. Print. Web. Nov. 2014.




“Ramayana”: Hanuman as a Figure of Dharma

Currently enrolled in a course on Hindu Traditions within the scope of my Master’s/PhD program in Mythological Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute, the following brief essay was assigned as a reflection of a theme or character within the epic saga the Ramayana.


The epic tale Ramayana is one of dharma, the duty or moral law within the Hindu Traditions. One of the central figures epitomizing an ideal example of dharma is the Monkey King, Hanuman.

Hanuman appears in the story as Rama pursues his kidnapped wife Sita from the demon king Ravana and stumbles upon the monkey kingdom of Kiskinda. Hanuman is a powerful creature who aids Rama by first embarking with his army to search for Sita, and eventually setting out to Ravana’s kingdom to see Sita as Rama’s messenger.

Hanuman allows himself to be captured by Ravana who lights his tail on fire. Hanuman uses this as an opportunity to ignite Ravana’s kingdom, saving the grove where Sita is kept. He then returns to Rama to finalize the plan of Sita’s rescue. Rama expresses anger to the ocean as his obstacle in crossing to the land that holds Sita. The ocean gods respond with guidance, sparking the idea in Hanuman to his monkey army to build a bridge over the ocean, thus resulting in the rescue of Rama’s wife.

The monkey people were said to be of godly parentage, possessing noble qualities, immense strength and keen intelligence. Hanuman is the son of Aruna, the charioteer of the sun god, and has been depicted as an incarnation of Shiva with powers inherited from the god of wind Vayu. When Hanuman was young he was advised by his father to dedicate his life to the service of Vishnu. When Rama makes his appearance, Hanuman knows immediately that Rama is an incarnation of Vishnu by his “inner voice.” His intuition is solidified upon learning of the story of Rama bending the bow of Shiva. Hanuman, through his actions, thus becomes an ideal figure of loyalty and dharma throughout the text by exhibiting his trustworthiness to Rama.

As such, Hanuman is a common archetype for human devotion; sometimes his figure stands on its own while other times as a subsidiary to Rama. Evident by his fearless actions in the story it can be said that to meditate on Hanuman is to acquire inner strength and freedom from fear.

When Hanuman traveled to Ravana’s kingdom, he did so by using his powers to grow extremely large and essentially took a giant step across the lands. It can be said that this giant step symbolizes his devotion to undertake the impossible in his servitude to Rama; it signifies the ability to overcome any obstacle as long as one puts forth devotion and reverence.

Hanuman did not second-guess his actions in his aid to Rama. He did not question the dangers nor what the “right” thing was to do – a beautiful example of dharma. Hanuman is depicted to me as the epitome of an honorable warrior, filled with compassion, loyalty and fearlessness.

The Duality of Women: Warrior and Goddess

Xena_Delicate Flower

“Xena” ~ Meme Maker Unknown

I cannot express how much I love this meme! Whenever I am in need of delightful amusement, this certainly does the trick.

Here we see the fictional character Xena, Warrior Princess set in ancient Greece, proclaiming in her angry, fierce battle cry that she is “a delicate feminine flower.”

This image and meme speak to me of the duality of the female spirit and characteristics: Women can in fact be “delicate flowers”: gentle, nurturing, compassionate, and wanting protection. Women are also warriors full of strength, resilience, and, much like the lioness protecting her cub, capable of ferocity and determination.

I must admit that I am a huge fan of Xena and all she represents; I also adore the actress Lucy Lawless and her portrayal of Xena. In my opinion the Xena character is worthy of deity stature, and she does certainly seem to be inspired by a multitude of cross-cultural heroines, such as Durga, Athena or Wonder Woman. She is known as the “Warrior Princess” with an evil, bloody history who seeks redemption by “doing good” in a land overrun by warlords and oppressive rulers. She has led battles, murdered, as well as protected. She has loved and sought peace. She is beautiful as well as battle-scarred.

The mythologies are filled with warrior women who also embody mothering, nurturing qualities. The Greek mythological goddesses such as Athena, Artemis, Hera, and Aphrodite may be the quickest to come to mind. All are beautiful yet powerful in their own ways. Hera is Queen of Mount Olympus; Athena and Artemis are warrior goddesses, skilled in hunting, protection, and warfare; and Aphrodite wields the power of seduction, love, and lust.


“Durga” ~ Artist Chadwick J. Coleman

I find that within the Hindu traditions an eloquent, complex example of the female duality is portrayed in various aspects of the principal form of the Goddess. In her gentler, more nurturing aspects she is Lakshmi, Saraswati, and Parvati. In her more wrathful, protective, and violent forms she is Durga and Kali. Each form embodies varying degrees of these personifications.

It seems to me that the “Old Ways” – the ancient traditions practiced in an array of polytheistic cultures – seemed to more successfully identify and embrace the unique characteristics of the male and female genders. This is not to at all suggest that either gender is “stronger” or “weaker”, as those are incredibly vague terms subject to interpretation. As a woman, I can speak as to my own feelings and experiences, and it is my finding that, particularly in our westernized and metropolitan lifestyle, the balance of our duality is blurred, if not completely obscured. The result is confusion as to what a “strong, independent” woman may mean; and that her desire for relationship may define her as “weak” or “needy”.   She may also be labeled as a “bitch” or otherwise overly aggressive and assertive, be it sexually, professionally, or otherwise.

Duality of Women

“It’s Always the Quiet Ones” ~ Photographer Unknown

I practice forms of martial arts as well as dance: in the martial arts I have studied Aikido, Kung Fu, and Capoeira; the dance styles I have studied are numerous but are predominately Middle Eastern bellydance and ballet. It is clear that a martial art provides fighting skills, confidence, clarity in thinking, and the reason required to assess a situation. The styles I studied are not only lethal, but fluid and graceful.

Ballet dancers appear fanciful, fairy-like, and as light as air. These movements require a power and a strength that may surprise the spectator. Likewise, the Middle Eastern bellydancer holds an exotic power of seduction and intrigue.

It is the duality of characteristics that have always contributed to my fascination, respect, and attraction to these particular martial arts and dance styles.


Photo by Sean Chandler; Model Selena Madden

To acknowledge these characteristics and find balance among them is to be a Goddess: strong, capable, fierce warriors pursuing goals and ambitions; nurturing, warm, and loving to her community, her family, and her romantic partner.

May the mythological goddesses serve as role models to encourage and guide us in connecting with our feminine powers.