Reawakening the Power of the Bear Goddess, and rooting back into the Earth
On March 18th, 2016, in occasion of the congress “Native Peace Cultures, the Paths of the Earth”, we prepared an important event to celebrate the Mother of Life and the Spring Equinox. For quite some time, I had been focusing my work increasingly upon animal forms of female expression, as well as on the Shamanic energies that we women nurture within our bodies, and which render us sisters and daughters of all living creatures. Be it as a bear, serpent, fox, owl or pheasant, tiger or tiniest bee, the Goddess of Life cyclically changes shape, assuming the most various forms, and we can learn how to flow in her drift, according to the necessities of time and space.
On this specific occasion, we dedicated our ceremony to the Bear, the most ancient and popular incarnation of Wilderness within our hemisphere, Lady of the Mountains, of Forests, Caves and Stars.
Who else but you has suffered greater violence or oblivion?
The ritual commenced with her death, introduced by a monologue held by actress Jelly Chiaradia. And lo and behold how low the scepter has fallen, just as the tender bonds that united us to her who brought us the spiral of life. And thus
[..] dies the earth
That you fall prey to fear
And the mysterious movement
Is not comprehended
But offended by the indecencies of a corrupt mentality
That has transformed
The magic of ancestral words
Into the slumber of freedom and vibrations of love
Now bound and buried (1)
But in silence and darkness of night, the Foxes have arrived. They have silently guided my path as a Shaman in a vital and fundamental way. And I am ever more convinced that the foxes hold an important lesson and message for each woman of our times. For the Foxes are able to walk the line linking life and death, and they teach us to frolic and prance about and make fun of the world, and display the irreverent side of Womanhood, our sensuality, the true sense of the grotesque and the ludicrous, and regeneration and awakening after long sorrow and pain.
But who shall succeed in the task of bringing the Bear back to life at the end of a winter that lasted so long as to resemble death? The Foxes spread the message, inviting all the women to act by the power of their Vulva, by the power of the Cave and the Hollow from which all of life comes into being. And their laughter, their singing and their dancing rings out loud to set their Bear Soul free, revolting and involving all spectators. And the Bear scepter abandoned on the barren soil comes back to life, and blossoms in the hands of those who take the task upon themselves to raise it once more, and is entrusted to a young man and a young woman, so that they may take it to a sacred place, to the center of a labyrinth guarded by women. These women remind us that water, earth, fire and air are the elements we are all made of.
At this point, singing and drumming continue to guide women, men and children while they bring offerings and flowers, which such emotion, which such joy! For this is the “sacred” place, a place where we may thank the Goddess that nurtures and protects us, a ceremony shared. We abandon our ego, and animals and souls are joined again. We are reconciled to the Bear, and as Mary Daly said, plunge our Roots back into the Earth, uniting in her name, and healing the wounds that have been inflicted on Womankind for almost five thousand years.
These are the ceremonies of women, which the world needs in order to bring humanity back together, free of patriarchy and domination. And such are the follies women are capable of, highly powered ceremonies, empathic and emotional, that heal both outside and within.
(1) Excerpt from a monologue by Jelly Chiaradia
Cerimony curated by Morena Luciani Russo in a joint venture with Sarah Perini, and with the participation of:
Drumming figures amongst the most ancient arts favored by women, as attested by vast ethnographic documentation. Sounding bells and drumming have ever been amongst the instruments privileged by both women and men to reach Shaman states of awareness.
The very essence of a Shaman drum is constituted by its frame, skin being strung up on one or both of its sides. The sound such produced permits us to communicate with beneficial spirits, and travel across words invisible. The drum serves the Shaman as a kind of lifebelt throughout her or his voyage, when she or he must return into her or his own body from a condition of trance (1).
From a strictly scientific point of view, the sound of the drum increments the Alpha and Theta waves of the human brain. The former represent frequencies that activate the connections between the two brain hemispheres, and bring about a sensation of well-being and relaxation, while the latter modify ordinary consciousness, inducing dreamlike states of ecstasy and heightened creativity. Drumming has a tremendous impact upon the human brain, and thus holds a central position within Shaman ceremonies.
Nowadays, there is a lot of talk throughout western countries dedicated to mindfullness and other types of meditation as a remedy against stress and anxiety symptoms. But we should not forget the therapeutic effects of drumming, especially if practiced in a group, which still receive little attention.
In the eighties, Sandra Harner and Warren Tyron, following a session of Shamanic drumming, observed that after half an hour of drumming, participants found their body defenses, serenity and psychic and physical balance to have increased considerably, accompanied by a heightened feeling of empowerment, satisfaction and self-consideration.
Ten years later, neurologist Barry Bittman published a study showing that group drumming not only acts on a psychological level, but actually increases the body defenses of all participants, and first of all the activity of so called killer cells, which make out and destroy those cells within our body which might be infected with some virus or cancer.
Research conducted by psychotherapist Robert L. Friedman points into the same direction: drumming is considerably beneficial to the condition of patients affected with symptoms such as Alzheimer, Autism, Parkinson and various immunity deficiencies.
Humans, and especially women, have always used drumming for healing and ritual purposes. In our present day society, this might seem strange. Today, the use of percussion instruments would seem to be a primarily male domain. But we must not forget that the first drums we know of date back as far as 5600 BOE, being depicted in a rock painting at Çatal Hüyük, a matriarchal Neolithic settlement where, as archeo-mythologist research has pointed out, the Goddess was worshiped as Goddess of Life, Death and Animals, and women held an important role in ritual and religious life.
Layne Redmond, a percussionist who has dedicated in-depth study to the use of drumming by women in antiquity, points out that:
Rhythmic music seems to have been particularly important in rituals associated with the ancient goddesses. We often find groups of women musicians, singers and dancers amongst the first representations of religious rituals. Drumming was at the musical and psychic core of such rituals. From Egypt to India, from Cyprus to Crete, and from Greece to Rome, priestesses and other officiating women used drumming to celebrate their goddesses, and the infinite rhythmic energy of life (REDMOND 1997)
The very first drummer we know of was a woman. She lived around 2380 BOE, and her name was Lipushiau, grand-daughter of King Naram Sim and high priestess of the moon sanctuary of Ur. Sumerian culture has also left us with numerous statuettes depicting women and goddesses drumming. According to eminent musicologist Walter Wiora, these first examples from the Sumerian culture carry on a tradition that goes well back to Neolithic times.
Drumming by women is also attested from Ancient Egypt. The temple of Dendera, dedicated to the goddess Hathor, comprises a space named Mammisi, a sanctuary where women went to give birth. One of the walls depicts thirty and two priestesses drumming. On the opposite side, twenty and nine priestesses hold a scepter and a Sistrum, a jingling instrument or rattle used by ancient Egyptian women in rites.
According to Redmond, women knew certain rhythms that favored uterine contraction, and drumming protected and guided them through life.
Throughout the entire Mediterranean, we find statuettes and low reliefs depicting women drumming, amongst them, and of particular interest, an image of the ancient Anatolian goddess Cybele, direct descendant of the Goddess of Animals of Çatal Hüyük. Worship of Cybele was adopted first by the Greeks, and then by the Romans, and the fact that she is often depicted drumming refers to the oracular powers with which her priestesses, and later her eunuch priests, were invested.
Throughout the entire Mediterranean, women also employed drumming during funeral rites. It was believed that the beat would favor the voyage of the dead, and provide a helpful means of bringing about their rebirth. Such beliefs found their reflection in nature. Our ancestors were well aware that the vibrations produced by drumming would quicken the germination of seeds sown, and empower the growth of vegetation. So why should it not aid and hasten the voyage of the dead as well?
According to Redmond, drums are shaped like the moon. It is the moon that beats the rhythm of life on earth. Considering that this profound relationship between women, the moon and time has been accounted for by the bone calendars of the Paleolithic age, it is hardly surprising that women should sound the drums wherever this relationship was honored and respected.
When the first Indo-European populations invaded the Balkan and Mediterranean areas of Ancient Europe (see Gimbutas 2008), this sacred correspondence was lost, and women were deprived of their political and ritual roles. So that drumming became the exclusive domain of male priests. And from that time on, drumming began to be used during military parades.
In Europe, Church prohibited any dancing and ritual singing by women during the Council of 826 OE, but went way beyond that during the 13th. century, putting a ban on the women that danced and performed for the dead, and forbidding them to partake in funerals.
Christianity was mainly responsible for the anathema imposed on drumming throughout the entire Mediterranean area.
Ethnomusicologist Paolo Pacciolla points out that
drumming was the very core and center of the rites that preceded Christianity, and prohibiting drumming a manner of eliminating all the ancient altars of previous cults. A similar process was underway in the Islamic world and musical culture, where drumming represented an essential metric function (Pacciolla 2008).
A similar expropriation has occurred in China, where the Wu, Shaman women who invoked rain on the mountainsides, holding serpents in their hands, and drumming, as a means of healing and divination, where deprived of their ritual roles when Confucianism uprooted matriarchy around 100 BOE.
Can it be mere coincidence that all these religions connected to patriarchal social systems should have outlawed drumming, and thus attempted to suffocate female spiritual energy?
END OF PART ONE
Testo (C) Morena Luciani Russo
ACCORDING TO THE LAW 248/00 THIS TEXT CAN BE USED BY QUOTING THE AUTHOR
(1) Personally, I prefer the expression Shaman states of consciousness to the reductive term “trance”. Cit. Pratt 2007.(For any further detail, see my book “Donne Sciamane”).
Belli Remo, “Interview with Dr. Barry Bittman”
Gimbutas M. Il Linguaggio della Dea, Venexia ed., Roma 2008
Luciani M., Donne Sciamane. Venexia ed., Roma 2012.
Tedoldi D., L’Albero della Musica, Anima ed., Milano 2006.
Maxfield M., “The Journey of the Drum”, in Re-vision 16, n. 4,
1994, pp. 157-163 e Neher A., “A Physiological Explanation of Unusual Behaviour in Ceremonies Involving Drums”, in Human Biology 6, 1962, 151-160.
Pacciolla P. e Spagna A.L., La gioia e il potere. Musica e danza in India, Besa, Nardò 2008.
Pratt C., An Encyclopedia of Shamanism, The Rosen Publishing Group, New York 2007.
Redmond L., When the Drummers Were Women. A Spiritual History of Rhythm, Three Rivers Press, New York 1997, p. 10.
Wiora W., The Four Ages of Music, W.W. Norton, University of Michigan, 1965.
Eisinger Dale, “Not Just for Music, Drumis Therapytoo.”
Last March, following the congress, your book “Donne Sciamane” came out (Ed.Venexia). How come there has been such little attention to female Shamanism in anthropology?
As I have tried to point out in my book, both sides of this question should be examined, the historical as well as the epistemological aspect. At the time when anthropologists began to study Shamanism, anthropology was still a subject dominated by men. Consequently, male anthropologists focused their studies on male prerogatives, such as sickness during initiation, or magic flight. This was also due to the fact that women are usually rather reticent about sharing their sacred insight with men, and because in most of the studied populations women did not “show”, they had no political saying whatsoever. So they were defined healers, Curanderas, and so forth, while the men who were in charge were considered to be Shamans, and counselors of the chiefs, if not, in some cases, even chiefs themselves. We should also take into account that Shamanism was regarded to be the first “religion” of humanity, and thus continually related to Prehistory and the idea of Prehistory which archeologists, paleontologists and anthropologists had come up with. That very same image that we still find in films and cartoons, featuring big men wielding clubs and hunting down big game, while women must necessarily die young due to childbirth. As a part of this kind of picture, Shamans were seen as an integral part of a group of male hunters, and consequently any ritual, artistic, political or social function was deemed to be male.
But research has lately discarded any of these interpretations. For the oldest human remains discovered with ritual objects and paraphernalia are all female! In my book, I have attempted to analyze all the elements that have tried to cancel female spirituality from human history.
In our society, woman is subject to a separation from her body, and his separation manifests itself through painful pathologies, and an attempt to comply with models imposed by the male mind. What can the female body learn from Shamanism?
The female body can learn to consider spirituality as being its own essence, an integral part of itself, beginning from our menstrual cycle, which provides us with a biological occasion to live “right here and now”, since we experience every month, form when we were girls, uncommon states of mind… that which has been termed “female intuition”. Within patriarchy, such states of mind have been considered to be second rate. But as Camilla Power and Judy Grahn have pointed out, the red cycle is the very essence of human rituality. It is time, mathematics, and the “sanctuary”. And then there is that other issue, childbirth. The capacity to give life is in direct connection with the world of mysteries. In many cultures, such as the aboriginal people of Australia, women did not need any ritual or sickness or initiation to become Shamans. Childbirth was considered to be sufficient.
Morena, you are also an artist, and in your book you give ample space to the relationship between art and ecstatic experience. How do Shamanism and artistic creation relate?
This is a complex issue. I could write a whole book on this subject. But, to use a metaphor, I would say that art and Shamanism have been lovers since the beginnings of humanity. The phosphenic theories stipulated by Lewis-Williams, Dowson and Clottes clearly relate rock paintings to Shaman states of awareness, and neurology has done its part to change paradigms with regard to this subject. And then there is the work conducted by Archeo-Mythology and Gimbutas, as well as the social and historical analysis by Eisler. So our vision of art and Prehistory changes completely and fundamentally. Art had little or nothing to do with hunting, or with first faltering attempts to express some innate esthetic urge. Art was at the center of the celebration of life. It connected the world of the living and the world of the dead. It was regenerating. And women held a central and fundamental role. They were Shamans, healers and artists.
Permit me to cite from your book:
<<…all natural substances that expand and cleanse our perception, vision and ordinary state of mind, have been outlawed, whereas alcohol, which provokes dependence, and feeds egoism and violent personalities, is absolutely legal>>. Many psycho-active substances are illegal, but many people recur to substances that damage their health and nervous system. Has Shamanism anything to teach us with regard to this?
Shamanism teaches us to connect to Life, life with a capital “L”. We have been living in a necrophile culture for about five thousand years, and it has banned female energy both on a spiritual and a political level. Both tendencies went hand in hand. Women have always made use of psychoactive plants. These plants have enormous healing potentials, and Shaman culture all over the world have always held them to be sacred. They do not induce dependency, but rather “awareness”, and reestablish the balance of body, mind and spirit, as well as the balance between woman, man and nature … this is precisely what our present society lacks, suffering from the maladies of the ego, which privilege dangerous substances, abusing of them in an absolutely ludicrous and inconsiderate manner. The question women should ask is: “are we going to abandon our children to the specter of drug abuse, or do we intend to face this argument?”
Euthanasia continues to provoke animated debates all across Italy. A law that leaves free choice of medical treatment seems almost out of reach. In your book, Shaman woman is described as guiding both through birth and death. How would you define the figure that used to be termed as Accoppatrice?
She was an ancient and curious figure within the folk traditions of Sardinia, a country that has always preserved something of its old matriarchal heritage. Each time a person was agonizing, but unable to die, various endeavors and even the last unction having failed, relatives would use to summon the Accabbadora, a woman churned in things “magic”, who knew how to impart immediate death, and how to conduct the soul towards the netherworld. Taking into account that the Accabbadora was also a healer and a midwife, we are face to face with a woman that is, beyond any doubt, a Shaman.
Concerning Euthanasia, I can only say that is has been outlawed by Catholic Church. In a certain sense, it would seem to sever the “pact of life with God”. But the matriarchal societies of Ancient Europe, which continue to live on in places like Sardinia, took a different view. Death was part of the cycle of life. Death was not “shunned”. Tombs were replenished with the symbols of regeneration, and in many cases, the bones of the ancestors would even be buried beneath the kitchen floor.
Rashida Manjoo, spokeswoman at the United Nations on violence against women, has labeled recent events in Italy as femmicide. What do you think?
I think she is absolutely right, and that it is more than necessary that Italian law and media should finally call this nightmare by its real name. To date, 73 women have been killed this year by their husbands or companions, because they had claimed their need to be free in one way or the other. This is a very complex issue. And it seems to me that this rising violence against women is some sort of backlash of patriarchy… The power of women continues to surge and grow throughout the world, and there is something in the patriarchal mind that seeks to block this rising energy. Laima is working on an extended educational project to promote partnership, for we believe that gaining a new perception of relationships is of the utmost importance right now.
Excerpt from the interview by Sonia Sion. To read the full interview CLICK HERE (IT)
Speech delivered by Morena Luciani Russo in occasion of the international meeting “LE RADICI MATERNE DEL DONO”, published by Vanda Ed. 2016.
Those who have never seen a church adore ovens. Sardinian saying
From a spiritual point of view, it seems both most urgent and vital to approach the question of gift giving. Latest research attests to the fact that matriarchal societies tend to be characterized by a gift economy, and an equal distribution of goods. Such societies also adopt an attitude of profound spirituality permeating every single aspect of daily life, a spirituality oriented towards the earth and the cycles of nature, and based upon the insight that women are sacred (Heide Goettner-Abendroth 2012).
From my own point of view, both as a researcher and a Shaman, I consider the giving of gifts to be at the very core and center of Female Shamanism. We should retrieve this concept. It might permit us to grasp the essence that inspired these expressions of female identity. For far too long, they have found little or no voice within male dominated research, be it anthropological or religious. This kind of research has always embraced an idea of Shamanism tuned down to the male and the neutral, which has little or nothing to share with its original meanings .
We might say that the male perspective on Shamanism has always been focused upon the presumed fantastic powers of the Shaman, on a personality that is both egocentric and eccentric, upon its social and political implications, and, as far as the present is concerned, a path of healing perceived as personal, individual growth.
If considered at all, women in this perspective often figure as healers, or else as able craftswomen. Otherwise, they are just seen as bitches, witches, bewitching and obsessed. But let me rather dwell on the “positive” aspects. We need them desperately!
But what has often been classified as mere “handcraft”, excluding any artistic merit, being deeply embedded within the necessities of daily life, expresses the matriarchal vision of the cycles of life, where the sacred dimension and daily life are intrinsically blended into one another.
Sowing, embroidery, the decoration of objects and domestic walls, or previously of caves, the preparation of food, as well as the weaving of baskets, all testify to transformation processes that women all over the world were able to perform with their hands and body, assuming even greater ritual significance during certain moments of passage – childbirth, becoming an adult, death, marriage and other moments of the sacred annual calendar.
Anthropologists have repeatedly discussed the significance and meaning of such rituals, but as so often, our western approach derives from a fractured understanding. Some have pointed out the social function of rituals, others their religious implications, or else the religious implications as a premise for social functions and a means to reinforce these within a given community. Others yet, to cite De Martino as an example, recognize ritual as the human response to the overwhelming mystery and might of nature, but in the sense of an impelling urge to control and overcome that nature.
As I said, these are male and very patriarchal points of view. It is my impression that almost nobody ever questioned themselves about ritual ceremonies performed by women, about what women actually do on such occasions. First of all, women basically bring offerings. But throughout thousands of years of patriarchy, men assumed spiritual and political leadership, and the true sense of this aspect was utterly lost. Offering remained, so to speak, marginal, and confined to the outskirts of other ritual functions that, in some cases, took on a heightened performance character. Now offerings are clearly gifts. But gift giving, offering and ritual will not be understood as long as we adopt linearity as our point of view. Native and rural cultures have to some extent maintained a cyclic concept of nature, and thus preserved the original significance of ritual as a gift.
From the point of view of female Shamanism, rituals are actions aimed at reestablishing balance between all the different levels of existence, be they physical, psychophysical, social, political or spiritual. Flavio Pinto, scholar of ancient writing and friend, once pointed out to me that if we go back beyond Latin and Greek etymology to Sanskrit as the old Indo-European language, we can make interesting discoveries regarding the significance of certain terms.
So I focused my attention on the root rta contained within the modern term “ritual”, and that root has a number of meanings that seem most interesting to me in this context, such as “health”, “sacred act”, “rule”, “honored” and “respected”.
Rituals set out to create “order”, and this very same term “order” comprises, through its similarity in sound, the word for “gift”, which in Sanskrit is dana or dhana, meaning “valued”, “treasured”, “cherished”, and “offering”. Through ritual, we offer something precious, so that we can say that rituals are based on the giving of gifts.
But yet one further consideration has to be made. In western eyes, this kind of gift has strictly utilitarian connotations, and has been reduced to the idea of exchange. Rituals would seem to be performed merely as a means to obtain some given result, in order to get what we want. And in fact we do receive something from any ritual, but this is not the point. Rituals are not about exchange. From a cyclic, matriarchal point of view, rituals are first of all gifts, thanksgiving, and celebration.
Women have always used their creative and spiritual powers to fashion special gifts for the Mother of the Universe and Life, and celebrate the cycles of nature. Amongst these special gifts, outstanding examples are provided by ritual bread making as practiced throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. Bread has always been at the very core and center of female ceremonies since the Neolithic age. Marija Gimbutas (2008) evidences bread ovens present in many Goddess sanctuaries of ancient Europe. Loafs were often shaped to resemble body parts of the Goddess of Life, such as buttocks, vulva and breasts, and were decorated with the ancient symbols of life and regeneration, as we can see from the images published by Gimbutas. The very same ovens in which bread was baked were often shaped to resemble the female body, featuring eyes and mouth, and in some cases the pregnant womb, complete with a protuberance recalling the umbilical cord.
As Kathy Jones (2013) points out, bread represented the sacred transformation of the life-bestowing Goddess of Grain, the Mother of Life, and thus figured within her sanctuaries.
The Sanskrit root pan evidences, amongst other meanings, concepts of “honor” and “being worthy of admiration”, so that we can say that that which sustains life is to be cherished, admired and honored, being the very essence of gift giving; and this is one of the reasons why bread has always received special attention.
It is well known that the ancient cyclic concept of nature, featuring spring as a young girl in flower, harvest as a mother, and winter and regeneration as an old woman, was taken up by Greek culture, where it found its expression in the myth of Persephone, Demeter and Hekate, and that ritual bread making was an integral part of the Mysteries of Eleusis, which were held in their honor each autumn.
And I mention Demeter and Persephone since my studies brought my attention to certain rites that are still practiced throughout present day Italy, and which are probably connected to this ancient divine cosmic couple. Let me tell you how women prepare and conduct these sacred events, for they are most apt to render an idea of how the spirituality of gift giving can act within a given community.
The first of these occasions is celebrated at Goriano Sicoli, in Abruzzo. It is a very ancient ceremony, which was later associated with the Christian veneration of Santa Gemma, and features a young girl and her commare, which in dialect refers to a mature, grown woman. It is held thrice every year, the prime celebration during May, in springtime, documented by the precious study of Paola Di Giannantonio.
Celebrations are conducted by a different couple of young spouses each year. The couple remains in charge of preparations that continue throughout the entire year, and involve the entire community. Originally, this also implied a redistribution of riches, since normally some less advantaged family would be chosen, thus providing its members with the necessary goods to outbalance any economic disproportion.
The couple, referred to as the procuratore and the procuratrice, literally the “providers”, are given the keys of the House of Santa Gemma, a sacred place, where bread is prepared, and all that is necessary for the ceremony is collected. The procuratrice and the procuratore share the tasks of collecting grain, grapes, eggs and money contributions and so forth. What is absolutely striking is that each and every family contributes according to their own possibilities, the grain provided by all being collected and preserved together with the grapes, which end up together in the casks to produce wine.
Women meet on the night of April 30th. to prepare the loafs in the House of Santa Gemma. The procuratrice precedes them, and lights the fire which she must kindle and keep burning throughout the three days and nights of ritual preparation to come. It should be pointed out that being in charge of the fire has always constituted a typical element of female Shamanism.
Bread making starts refreshing the “mother”, or natural yeast. In past times, this was obtained uniting the yeast provided by each single family. Women work on a single long table, kneading the dough, and passing each loaf on, one at a time, so that each single loaf will have been touched by each single woman. Loafs are decorated with three parallel slits and the initials of Santa Gemma (S and G). Afterwards, the women used to bake the loafs at home, and then bring them back to the House, but nowadays this task is executed by the men, even if they are not allowed to enter the House during the rite, and wait at the entrance for the women to pass them the loafs to bake.
Women take turns, but in some cases may work without interruption for three days and three nights. Once the bread has been baked, it is brought into a single room of the House, and placed there according to a set rule. And here it will remain until May 11th., when the day of the celebration that all have been looking forward to comes, and when the mothers poise ritually decorated baskets onto the heads of their daughters, and fill them with the loafs. It is an ancient custom that the girls should not be admitted to the room of the bread. They are to distribute the sacred loafs amongst the whole community, and to guests.
The bread does not decay, it is devoutly kissed when received, preserved at home, and consumed throughout the year. The highlight of the ceremony is reached when the girl incarnating the saint, walking to the village from a nearby community, and bearing a thick candle, joins her commare in the House. What else can come to mind but the very myth of Demeter joining Persephone!
But let us move on farther down south, into Campania, to Castelvetere sul Calore, in the province of Avellino. There, on April 28th, the Madonna delle Grazie is celebrated. For three weeks, the women of the entire village knead and bake loaves shaped like little doughnuts, referred to as tortano.
These doughnuts are piled up to form an immense altar dedicated to the Madonna: an average of almost 45.000 tortani placed one on top of each other, composing an immense and imposing structure.
Bread is kneaded rhythmically by groups of women in large wooden bowls, in a dance-like movement; flour is donated by each single family, and throughout the whole preparation, the nutrici, or “nurturesses”, continue to lead the singing (just consider how much energy flows into these loaves!). When the day of bread making arrives, on April 25th, all the women wash their hands and face with the same water, and in the same bowl.
But center-stage of this ceremony is held by the young girls who figure as dispensatrici, literally “distributors” As we were able to see before, it is their task to distribute bread to the entire community on that special day.
During the days that precede celebrations, the families of the dispensatrici collect gold from their families and friends, such as bracelets, necklaces and earrings, signing down each item, so that they may be duly returned after the ceremony; all this jewelry is sown into the dresses of the young girls, into a kind of corset. Personally, I consider this custom a beautiful manner of investing young girls with the task of conveying the notion of the sacred, endowing them with the power to bring blessings to the entire community. It reminds me of the ”forgotten” child goddess described by Mario Bolognese.
The tortano is sacred and protective. It is consumed, or else displayed at home, in public spaces, or recently even hung up in cars.
We find instances of ritual bread making throughout all of Southern Italy, in Puglia as in Sicily. But I would like to dedicate my conclusion to a most special custom to be found in Sardinia.
This custom has been amply and extensively catalogued (various authors 2005). Take a glance at these two women in splendid ceremonial attire, ready to prepare bread loaves decorated with bird and nature images. In Sardinia as well, bread was prepared, decorated and baked by women.
On this island, ritual bread is highly important, to the extent of being considered the essence of all the arts. In fact there are a number of varieties for all occasions, bread to commemorate the dead, bread to celebrate marriage, and bread used for magic as well, and even toy bread for children.
Amongst the more elaborate forms of bread we find the loaves named Sa Coccoi, which the women from the community of Lei, literally “She”, in the Nuoro province, prepare in small groups between April 24th and April 25th. These are offered celebrating Saint Mark in a small nature sanctuary. They sometimes display a small perforation in the center, or else are offered in little baskets. These are replenished with the manifestations of life, with bird nests, flowers, leaves and fruit. Some of them are placed on top of each other, decorated with paper and ribbons, and the women parade them about on sticks during the procession.
There is also the custom of fashioning loaves that are quite explicitly shaped like a vulva, and can be given by a spouse to her husband to come, denominated Is Pillosas.
A highly enlightening study by Salvatore Dedòla (2008) reveals the extent to which Sardinia has retained its roots within an ancient cultural background that preceded the arrival of Indo-Europeans, while Latin influence has remained rather superficial; according to this linguist, Pillosa would seem to derive from the ancient Pell-usu, meaning “goose egg”. I consider this to be a reminder of the egg that created the universe, symbol of the Mother of Life, mentioned by Marija Gimbutas, and which finds its mirror image in the vulva.
Other loaves are breast-shaped, and there is one version depicting a woman with a multitude of breasts, recalling the Artemis of Ephesos; such loaves were given to little girls (Dedòla 2008).
If we want to remain within the realm of the celebration of life, we should not forget that in Sardinia, the bride also receives her loaf of bread, which in this case assumes a phallic form, and should be consumed on the very day of marriage.
Amongst this variety of ritual forms created by women there is another important bread loaf named Pippia de Caresima, a kind of calendar girl child, a leg of which is consumed for each of the weeks that precede Easter.
Dedòla further brings our attention to a perforated loaf, a kind of elliptical doughnut named Sa Forrottula, the name of which would derive from the ancient form Burrutu, with the addition of the Sardinian adjective la, meaning “female servants of the sanctuary”: it would seem that this was the bread of the priestesses performing sacred prostitution; and that throughout Sardinia, there were at least 17 sacred sites dedicated to this custom. Sacred prostitution or sacred sexuality? We cannot hope to approach this subject here. But let it be said that when we use the term “prostitution”, we are very likely to fall back into our own modern mental categories, and apply them to ancient cultures.
As last instance of ritual gift, I would like to share this incredible composition created by the women of Fonni, in the province of Nuoro, in occasion of the celebration of San Giovanni, on June 24th. It is called Cocone e’ Frores, meaning “sweet  and shaped like an elevated sanctuary and baked in the oven”.
It is a structure six to seven meters high, composed of about 250 pigeons and chicken, carried through the streets in occasion of the procession of San Giovanni, and consumed and shared towards the end of August.
All this is but to show you how much time and energy women invest in ritual art. Bread making is just one case. We could cite numerous other examples from all over the world to show how the creative implications of ritual gift giving can empower women, and enable them to continue to experience the dimension of Shamanism, and offer it to a new society.
VIEW THE ENTIRE CONFERENCE. From minute 40:00, the section dedicated to spirituality by Morena Luciani Russo, Vicki Noble, Letecia Layson and Camilla
Various Authors (2005), Pani. Tradizione e Prospettive della Panificazione in Sardegna, Ilisso Edizioni.
Dedòla S. (2008), I Pani della Sardegna, Grafica del Parteolla.
Di Giannantonio P. (2005), Demetra per sempre. La festa delle donne a Goriano Sicoli. Culti alternativi agrari nella Valle Subequana e nella Valle Peligna, Margaret Fuller Edizioni.
Gimbutas M. (2008), Il linguaggio della Dea, Venexia.
Goettner-Abendroth H. (2012), Le società matriarcali. Studi sulle culture indigene del mondo, Venexia.
Jones K. (2013), La Dea nell’antica Britannia, Psiche 2.
Luciani M. (2012), Donne sciamane, Venexia.
 For an in-depth discussion of this question, see Donne sciamane(2012).
 It should be pointed out that this is a sacred night of the ancient calendar, the night that ushers in the first of May.
 Mario Bolognese, writer, poet and educator, is specialized in Gylanic education. His books evidence the importance of the girl as a goddess, which has been swiped out by patriarchy.
How did you first get involved with these arguments?
Well, first of all, as an artist. My research had always been inspired by a passion for things archaic, but at the time, I still knew little about the Neolithic age. But then, one evening, I ended up making this drawing of a woman with strange features, and she had this enormous belly, and huge breasts. I was not used to this at all, for at the time I was absorbed in color and very stylized images. So this came as something completely new, and very powerful, and it seemed to have come just out of nowhere. And a few days later I found out that I was pregnant. But it proved to be much more than just an anticipation of my new life as a mother. The very same week, while I was strolling about a library, a book caught my attention. On its cover, there was the depiction of a woman that uncannily resembled the one I had drawn only the other night. It was an ancient statuette from Cyprus. From this moment on, I sensed that I had a path to follow. And I just devoured the books by Gimbutas, Riane Eisler, and then Vicki Noble and Luciana Percovich (IT) . Both Vicki and Luciana have had a fundamental impact on me, both intellectually and spiritually. Another impulse came from my encounter with Genevieve Vaughan, and my friends from the Associazione Armonie in Bologna. They had been the first to translate the work of Heide Goettner Abendroth, at a time when none of her books were published in Italy yet.
So it was basically the quest for female spirituality that led you on?
Yes, definitely. Female spirituality had surfaced again towards the end of the nineteen seventies. Archeology, anthropology, art and research all combined to bring forth an immense documentation that attested a period in human history when women were honored as an emanation of the Goddess of Life, a female principle that was much older than Zeus and all the Olympic gods, or the God Father of monotheism. Amongst all that turmoil around the discovery of the Goddess culture, the main basic question was this: “if there ever was a female spirituality, ancestrally testified for by women, then what was it like, and in what kind of society did it thrive and flourish?” Whoever sets out on the path of female spirituality, delving into Goddess culture, is sooner or later bound to raise certain questions. Just as whoever studies matriarchy must take female spirituality into account. There is a profound connection linking these two aspects. But the term “matriarchy” continued to be very controversial. We were not so sure whether we wanted to use it. And so we came up with the concept of “Native Peace Cultures”.
I felt it was really important to lend a voice to the people still living within such societies, and confront ourselves with the ideas that western people had regarding them. And so, in a joint effort with Luciana Percovich, Sarah Perini and Daniela Degan (IT), we organized this international meeting. We liked the idea of creating a situation where people from all over the world would meet and discuss and share the values of matriarchy with us, whilst we were trying to bring these values to the necrophile society we live in.
In 2012, Laima and the Native Peace Cultures Conference, for the first time ever, invited two spokeswomen of the Moso community to Italy. The Moso are also known as “Country of Women” or the people without husbands (or wives). Among the guests of this new meeting, there were Maria Teresa Panchillo and Yessica Huenteman Medina, from the Mapuche in Chile, and Malika Grasshoff, from the Kabyls of Algeria. How did you manage to contact all these women, and how did they respond to the invitation by Laima?
Inviting two spokeswomen from the Moso community to Italy turned out to be no easy task, an endeavor which would have been altogether unthinkable without the precious help from Francesca Rosati Freeman. As you can imagine, bringing two members of an ethnic minorities of China to this country was not that easy. Anyhow, we mostly get our contacts worldwide from other independent researchers who treat similar arguments. All the people that have been involved so far have always gladly accepted, being very proud of their cultural heritage, and honored to discuss it.
The conferences organized by Laima have always featured workshops and artistic performance. This was also the case for the workshop on Saturday March 19th 2016 (afternoon) dedicated to drawings and magic writing of the Berber women in North Africa, or Sunday March 20th (morning) with Susun Weed on herbal medicine, as well as that on Mapuche art, amongst others. What determined this choice?
We have no intention whatsoever to limit ourselves to a merely mental approach to any culture. If we were to limit ourselves to words and lectures, we would remain on a merely rational level, and we might risk remaining within the limits of what we call the “dominant system”. The challenge is to communicate on more levels, transforming the pyramid into circles that comprise all parts of the self. In these terms, art remains a preferred channel.
One more word on art. The work of photographer Pierre de Vallombreuse comes to my mind, who will speak this Sunday afternoon. How do you connect to his work? And how would you explain the prominence of art that characterizes all of your research and activities?
Art is the key that allows us to access reality as a whole. In a society that is painstakingly retrieving a sacred dimension in matter and upon earth, art could regain its place, instilling harmony and beauty into daily life. It could contribute to a profound celebration of life, rather than being its fleeting surface, mirroring a sexist and violent society. When I first saw the work Pierre dedicated to the matriarchal societies of Asia, I was profoundly struck by his ability to capture the very essence of these cultures, and I remain most curious about his male point of view. I think that is essential that we reinvest reality with the values of matriarchy, as native activist Bernedette Muthien puts it, and both women and men must contribute in that sense.
EASTWARD, where the first Woman violated by patriarchal men driven by the venom of anger rests, I see new men who ask to be forgiven, cleansing wounds, guided by Compassion and a heart pure as crystal. And I feel gratitude towards them.
SOUTHWARD, where the first Woman beaten and bruised by patriarchal men driven by the venom of arrogance rests, I see new men caressing the scars, intent on treating women and all creatures with Evenness of Mind and Temper. And I feel gratitude towards them.
WESTWARD, where the first Woman killed by patriarchal men driven by the venom of Greed and the Obsession for Possession rests, I see new men who mourn over her remains, learning to act according to the rules of Awareness regarding the results of their doing. And I feel gratitude towards these men.
NORTHWARD, where the ashes of the First Woman to be burned alive by patriarchal men driven by the venom of jealousy rest, I see new men singing to the spirits, and inhaling the secrets of the cycle of life and Transformation. And I feel gratitude towards these men.
IN THE CENTER, where the First Woman deprived of her Past rests, extenuated and annihilated by patriarchal attitudes that have fractured everything, I see new and ancient women gathering around the Tree of Life, Mother of All Things, nurturing, uniting the heavens and earth. The new men do not shun the tree, but sit beneath its Roots, gathering thousands of beads scattered amongst the grass, and honoring the laws of the Mother. And I feel grateful towards these men.
Afterword by Morena Luciani Russo for the volume “Per non Condannare a Morte l’Amore” by Mario Bolognese.
Text freely inspired by the invocation of the 5 Dakini as elaborated by Vicki Noble.
You also organize Circles of Women. What significance do they have for you?
Let me answer with another question: which is the very first circle we know of?I was thinking about this with a dear friend of mine recently, Flavio Pinto, whom I would like to define as a Gylanic scholar of ancient languages, and he in fact pointed out to me that in Italian, we should rather use the feminine form “cerchia”, our very first circle being the womb of our own mother. Our ancestors would never have used the male form referring to the womb of the mother. Is it not marvelous that this was said by a man?
We could say that coming together in a “circle” meets an almost biological need of our most intimate nature, but we have been living for more than five thousand years in pyramid structures, and it is by no means easy to bring the circle back into our life. As women, we feel an urgent need to live “circular” experiences. We can no longer go on supporting the violent and sexist system we live in, and let our children grow up within such a system. But nothing will change as long as we continue as isolated women, in that condition of permanent Diaspora of which Mary Daly speaks, for this is the very state of alienation that continues to provide fertile ground for patriarchy. Women Circles are base upon performances that are at the same time physical and spiritual, upon the celebration of the cycles of nature. They provide women with a space where to share and exchange energy courage.
They also provide us with a powerful antidote against that competition for which we are being blamed so often. Competition responds to the demands of patriarchal mechanisms, it is not in our nature, as they would have us believe. Actually, the women and men who recover the values of matriarchy become Homo e Femina Donans, with an outlook that encompasses cooperation, giving, nurturing, and resolving conflicts in a manner that is not destructive. And thus reclaiming the value of the circle becomes essential for all of us, and especially so for women.
In your highly interesting book on female Shamanism “Donne Sciamane”, you also refer to blood and moon lodges, places to which women would retire in order to meet, meditate and “create” during their “red period”. Do you think this kind of practice should be encouraged in western cultures as well?
It would be a great step if women were finally to regard their red cycle as being intimately and intrinsically connected to their spiritual powers. As I tried to point out in my book, all societies that are bent on suffocating female energy tend to depict menstruation as impurity. So it becomes all the more important for us to free ourselves from that association of menstruation and impurity. In my workshops, I frequently use red Okra, which was used during female rituals for ages. It is a way of reconciling ourselves with the blood that brings life. The fact that women used to meet during their red period was a biological response to community life. When women live together, their cycles become synchronized. This is certainly a very beautiful habit, maybe a little bit difficult for us, since we live isolated from one another. It might be experimented by those who live in co-housing or eco-communities. In any case, we can set out from such experiences, trying to find other forms of celebration. I think that creativity is an essential aspect of female energy.
I noticed that recently you have been signing with you double surname: Morena Luciani Russo. Why did you decide to add the second surname to your first?
I decided to add the name of my mother to that of my father since the right to do so is not yet recognized by the law in this country. It really hurts me profoundly not to be able to use the name of the person who gave me life with her body. And it hurts me that my children do not have my name next to the name of their fathers. I have two children from two different fathers, but the law does not recognize them as brother and sister. Is this not absurd? They were both born from my womb. Right now, here in Italy, you can file an application for permission to add the name of the mother to that of the father. It is a rather lengthy procedure, and I am going to do so soon. But deep inside I hope for more justice, for if I file this application, I would in any case still have to bear the name of my grandfather and my male ancestry. And then let us not forget that calling ourselves by the name of our father has some symbolic and energetic implications that should not be underestimated. Any person working on a spiritual level should be aware of this. This is also the reason why I always ask for both names during my workshops on female Shamanism. I discussed this once with Luciana Percovich, and according to her, the name of our mother or grandmother might actually provide us with a real maternal name. I think that this is a splendid idea, even if it may still seem a dream, since there is still no law by which we can give our children both the name of their mother and their father.
Do you think that the cult of the Goddess is about to be recovered within the next decades or centuries?
The Goddess is much more than just a cult. It is as if you were to ask me “Do you think that we will ever be able to treat our planet with heightened awareness, respect and attention, that we will ever manage our resources with justice and equality, that we will ever be able to form enlarged families that support mothers with the help of other women and Gylanic and willing men? Do you think that women will ever find their own spiritual and political space and liberate themselves from all patriarchal and male models? Do you think that there will ever be men ready to acknowledge the role of women, ready to question and redefine their own identity, and renounce coercion and hierarchy?” I can just say this: “I am Morena Luciani Russo, this is the year 2015, and I can assure you that much of this is already underway, and has been going on for some time now, and that those who are working in this sense and in this direction are part of a process that will heal fractured Womanhood. We are all on our way towards the Goddess, and once we set out on certain roads, the sensibility for the sacred develops almost spontaneously. It is part of human nature. We are born to be neither egoist nor violent, and equity is the way of the Goddess.”
From an interview conducted by Giovanna Lombardi. For the complete text, please consult her book, “Sciamane. Donne che si Risvegliano” Verdechiaro Edizioni, 2015