Presentations

Text: © 2015 Hallfridur J. Ragnheidardottir

Links to the contents of this page:

  • Snakes, Dragons, and Other Scaly Creatures
  • Whom Does the Dream Serve?
  • Threshold Experience of the Girl-Child




    Snakes, Dragons, and Other Scaly Creatures



    Conference held at the C. G. Jung Center of New York on March 5th, 2016.



    The Snake, the Dragon, and the Menstruating Womb

    My point of departure is this dream of a 13 year old American girl:

    I am on a deserted beach that stretches out in every direction. Everything is gray. I'm on my knees on a sofa, looking over the side arm, and the tide is coming in rolling under the sofa, then back out again. When it washes out I see a huge black snake slithering under the sofa in a figure 8. The tide keeps washing in and out, and the snake keeps swimming under the sofa. It's so big that the edges of the 8 shape are sticking out from under the couch on all four sides. I am terrified of it and can't get off the couch. It seems like the dream was really long and this was all that happened in the whole thing, just the snake swimming over and over and me trapped on the couch.

    The dream was on the agenda of an online dream course in which I participated but we did not have a chance to explore it. The encounter with the young girl's dream transported me back to my transition into womanhood at age 13, a moment ingrained in the memory of my body no less than my mind, and I instinctively knew that it contained a message for our time, when the pharmaceutical industry holds out a promise to do away with the old "curse" for good, and I sought permission to quote it in the context of my work on menstruation.

    The dream puts the dreamer on the border between land and sea where, symbolically, the meeting of the conscious and the unconscious takes place. Her fear was immediately obvious but only later did her posture, with its implied reverence, impress itself on me. She is on her knees as she comes face to face with the impersonal power of nature. The dream reflects the cosmic rhythm of which her menstrual cycle is a part. And that cosmic implication ties in with the eternity symbol of the horizontal figure 8, embodied by the snake.

    In Genesis God decreed enmity between woman and the snake. Much like the snake that slithers under the sofa in the girl's dream, this tale about humanity's loss of innocence, due to disobedience, is an undercurrent in the Judeo-Christian mindset. To the ancients the snake was a symbol of wisdom. Its kinship with the womb was recognized as both shed their skin to renew themselves, and so, too, does the moon, who rules the tides, shed its old self to be reborn. The spell in the Garden of Eden drove a wedge between woman and her womb, whose rhythm is lunar. She shall suffer in childbirth, the Lord decreed, and she shall suffer in menstruation. A girl's awakening Eros, her sexual drive which fuels her creativity, shall be turned toward a husband who shall rule over her.

    In his book, The Tarot: A Key to the Wisdom of the Ages, Paul Foster Case explains that the horizontal figure 8 is an "ancient occult number ascribed to Hermes," a god of transitions and boundaries who, as a messenger of the gods, was a bringer of dreams. "This horizontal 8," Case further explains, "is also a symbol of the Holy Spirit." While Christian dogma holds that the Holy Spirit is masculine, in Jung's view it is personified by Sophia as Wisdom.

    In tribal society, a girl crossing into womanhood may be subjected to a solitary quest for a dream or vision that will point to her path in life, and perhaps grant her a guardian spirit or a power animal as well. How would we apply such an interpretation to the dream of this 13 year old girl? Could it tell us something about her calling? The Tarot card attributed to Strength and the number 8, might offer a key to those questions. It shows a woman gently taming a lion and




    from Builders of the Adytum (B.O.T.A.)


    Astrological symbol for Leo

    over her head hovers an eight-shaped snake in the silvery guise of Mercury, Hermes's Roman counterpart. Attributed to this Tarot card is the Hebrew letter Teth, which means "snake." We see it here in the lower right hand corner of the card. In the words of Paul Foster Case, it is a "symbol of what has been known among occultists for ages as the 'serpent-power'." And he points out that the astrological symbol for Leo resembles a serpent.

    The figure 8 of the slithering snake indicates bipolar creativity, suggesting an ongoing dialogue between solar consciousness, symbolized here by the woman's blond hair, and unconscious animal instincts. The image is one of reciprocal trust. The fruitfulness of this relationship is expressed by animal fire transformed into a crown and a garland of roses. This is a task nature assigns to the menarcheal girl whose incipient menstrual flow is indeed wild and independent of her will. The cat, renowned for its independence, was an attribute of Freyja, Norse goddess of love and fertility. Here it appears in the regal guise of a male lion. Freyja's husband is hidden from view in the myths, except for his evocative name, Óður, which means "poetry," while as an adjective it refers to the wild nature of her mate. Wildness is thus a pronounced aspect of Freyja and the source of her growth and creativity. Love and fertility in the broadest sense are abundantly expressed in this card. The woman opens the animal's mouth, as if to give voice to the unadulterated truths of nature.

    As a Major Arcana card, Strength depicts an indwelling potential which her dream brings to the attention of the 13 year old girl as she finds herself on the threshold of womanhood. Freyja was a völva, which is Icelandic for a seeress or a sibyl, a woman who mediates messages from the unconscious. This is what our dreamer has done by sharing her archetypal dream with her community and beyond. The word völva is seemingly derived from Lat. volva, vulva, which means "womb." And so does the name Delphi, where the oracle resided, derive from the Gr. delphus which means "womb." The fact that the oracle operated but one day a month suggests it was connected to the Pythias' menstruation.




    "Du bist der herr des aufgangs"

    "You are the lord of the beginning," says Jung in this incantation. On the image I see a snake giving birth to the world tree which is taking shape in chaos. Judy Grahn, author of Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World, remarks that Western minds have been taught to see the snake as penile while, in her view, it is "the one creature on earth that most looks like a disembodied vagina," in particular when swallowing food. Those who are familiar with The Little Prince, know that a serpent is capable of engulfing its pray whole. Here we have his priceless drawing of a boa digesting an elephant that the grown-ups took for a hat.



    We tend to forget that the Snake-symbol, embodiment of fire and water, lies beyond opposites. And so does the womb, and the evolutionary force of menstruation which mythology gives us reason to believe thrust humanity out of a state of unconsciousness.

    The Völva's Prophecy is an Eddic poem recited by a seeress whose remembrance reaches as far back as the beginning, when the world tree was but a seed in the womb of the earth. The poem is believed to have been composed around the time of transition from heathendom to Christendom. Here the völva, who refers to herself in the third person, relates her memory of the first killing in the world:

    "She remembers

    the first killing in the world

    when Gullveig they speared

    and in High One's hall her burned.

    Thrice they burned her,

    thrice she was born,

    often, not seldom,

    yet she still lives.


    Heidur they called her,

    when she to houses came,

    a prophesying völva..."


    (st. 21-22; my translation)

    In the obscure latter part of stanza 22, Heidur's mantic powers are described, her skill in performing seidur, a ritual which involved ecstatic communion with the beyond, and the attraction she exerted on evil people.

    According to Snorri Sturluson, a 13th century historian and poet, Freyja was a priestess and she taught the art of seidur to Odin. Accounts about this ritual are scarce and untrustworthy as they were committed to vellum by Christian scribes centuries after the practice had been discontinued. Iceland was officially Christianized in the year 1000, but already in the preceding century the völvas' practice had become a crime that was severly punished by law. Most often these women were stoned to death or else they would be burned at the stake. These are punishments still inflicted upon aldulteresses in some parts of the world. The völvas' crime consisted in communing with other gods than the one adopted by the ruling powers. They were guilty of spiritual aldultery.

    Shrouded in the mists of prehistory, Gullveig, and her human counterpart Heidur, have been a puzzle never fully resolved by scholars. To the founding fathers of Icelandic scholarship, Gullveig was a female incarnation of the 'lust for gold', an enchantress planted by the enemy in the realm of the Æsir (a collective name for Odin’s pantheon) to incite dissension among them. That negative interpretation was projected on Heidur as heir to Gullveig’s devious machinations. That the völva reciting the poem is the same as the Heidur who ever and anon attracted evil people, is generally not accepted. However, a negative portrayal of a völva’s ritual practice in a poem recited by a völva was an inconsistency that scholars could not overlook. One insisted that the poet had let his reprobation of such practices take prescedence over what sounded plausible in the mouth of a völva. In their search for the author of The Völva’s Prophecy, scholars looked for a learned and well-traveled male. Discussion about the possibility of female authorship was relegated to footnotes. Today the view that the timeless poem was composed by a woman is gaining ground.

    I suggest, and will endeavor to show, that the "evil people" to whom the völva refers as being irresistibly drawn to Heidur, applies to Odin himself. What the völva is emphasizing in stanza 21, it seems to me, is that like the snake that washes up on the shores of the 13 year old girl in the shape of an infinity symbol, Gullveig personifies Life-force that cannot be annihilated, only transformed.

    The literal meaning of Gull-veig is "gold-drink." Veig also means “might” and as an epithet for woman in ancient poetry emphasized female power. Gullveig can also mean "gold chalice" which implies that the vessel derived name from its content. I venture that Gullveig is a female personification of the menstruating womb which possesses the power to heal itself, to renew itself, and emerge forever reborn through endless generations of women, as we have seen in the dream of the 13 year old girl. By the same token the völva, who represents Gullveig in her human self, derives her title from the womb (volva) as vessel which contains the Life-force that Gullveig personnifies.

    Yet another meaning for Gullveig is a "thread of gold" which would seem to link her to the well of Urd, located under the world tree Yggdrasill, from whence came the three Norns who ruled the fate of men. As implied by their names Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld, denoting "Past, Present and Future," they maintain continuity in human evolution and prevent man from becoming estranged from his roots. In the context of our subject, it is interesting to note that norn has come to mean witch in modern day parlance.

    Freyja is the goddess most prominently associated with gold in Norse mythology, not the least through the tears she shed after her husband, Óður, "went far away," as says Snorri Sturluson, "but Freyja, stays behind and weeps, but her tear is red gold." Being tabooed, the menstrual reality of our ancestresses found expression in symbolic language. At the time of the flow, women felt themselves to be close to divinity. Their bleeding was widely believed to be caused by an invisible bridegroom, a moon god whose celestial body disappears into the earth's shadow during the dark phase of the moon and comes out reborn in bright splendor three or four nights later.




    Angel piercing Teresa's heart and entrails with golden spear

    Saint Teresa's visionary experience, immortalized by Bernini's masterpiece The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, may well be an expression of this deep-rooted female reality. In her own account, she saw an angel with in his hand a golden spear, at the point of which there seemed to be a little fire. Do we not get a glimpse here of a serpent flashing its fiery tongue? "This," she says, "I thought that he thrust several times into my heart, and that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew out the spear he seemed to be drawing them with it, leaving me all on fire with a wondrous love for God."

    If Teresa was indeed describing the menstrual moment, the erotic overtones of her narrative would be corroborated by Dr. Ben Michaelis, a clinical psychologist who "believes that the first few days of menstruation mark the 'happy time' of the month, as some women report feeling more energetic, happy, and even inspired." A combination of both increasing estrogen and testosterone levels, he explains, leads a woman to feel more sexual during her period. Pelvic congestion, or the heaviness felt during menstruation can trigger arousal. That women derived pleasure from their periods was hardly to be tolerated by an establishment that proclaimed their sexuality to be the prerogative of their husbands.




    Sigurd pierces Fáfnir with sword

    Image: "Brynhild at the Loom" by August Malmström (1829-1901)

    The spearing of Gullveig, cited by the völva as the "first killing in the world," appears to be the prototype of the hero's conquest of the dragon. In this legendary battle, the hero endeavors to usurp the Life-force personified by Gullveig and bend it to his own needs. Odin's protégé, Sigurd, was celebrated as the "greatest hero of all times" after he slew the dragon Fáfnir, whose masculine name betokens "embrace." It is a name that evokes the serpent of Midgard who encircles the embryonic world in Norse mythology. Through this naming, a privilege the Lord bestowed on the male in Genesis, we detect a masculine appropriation of the earth womb with its secrets and infinite, or so he thought, riches. This god-given rulership was transferred onto the womb of woman and by extension the female reproductive system. Jung notes that snake and dragon are synonymous as in Lat. draco also means snake, and so is Fáfnir referred to now as a dragon, now as a snake in the account of his demise which took place on a heath called Gnitaheidur.

    Sigurd ambushed the gigantic Fáfnir when he was wont to come out to slake his thirst and pierced him to the heart with his sword. He then fried the dragon's heart in fire, and as he tested with his finger whether it was done, he burned himself and put the finger in his mouth. When the (magic) blood came on his tongue, he understood the language of birds who became his saviors and guides. Ignoring the dying Fáfnir's warning that his "fiery red gold" would bring death on him and whoever would come to own it, Sigurd traced Fáfnir's trail back to his underground lair where he found gold in abundance, a warrior's paraphernalia, and many treasures besides. Fáfnir's prophecy is fulfilled as Sigurd and his entire kin are wiped out in a most gruesome manner. The morale of the story being: the hero did not respect his limitations.

    On a grander scale the völva of the Prophecy foretells the going under in flames of a world founded on betrayal and fraught with corruption and warfare. But she also sees the earth emerge again out of the sea, virgin and green. Her prophecy brings to mind the snake that washes ashore in the dream of the 13 year old girl as if to herald a new beginning while emphasizing the inherent unity of the Life-force and the harmony between its light and dark poles.




    Apollo piercing Python with arrow
    Engraving by Virgil Solis (1581)

    The name Heidur, conferred on völvas as human incarnations of Gullveig, means "honor" and as an adjective refers to the cloudless sky. In like manner any priestess at Delphi was called Pythia, derived from Pytho, the previous name of the oracle which the Greek trace to the verb (pythein), "to rot," in reference to the decomposition of the monstrous Python after he was slain by Apollo. Or should I say she, for before that heroic deed the serpent-monster was feminine and without a name? An obsolete meaning of the word heidur is "heath" which is where Sigurd's killing, and presumably the decomposition, of Fáfnir took place. It is easy to imagine how this process of death and decomposition would have been projected on the menstruating womb where new life had failed to take seed. Thus the name Gnita-heidur, where Fáfnir had his lair, suggests stony and infertile land. The völva's womb was sterile in the biological sense. The image of Freyja's tears of red gold evokes the received truth about the womb that weeps because it fails to conceive.

    Given her cultural legacy, how will a 13 year old girl cope with a black snake in her dream? Will she not presume that she is being approached by the deceiver? We saw earlier that the horizontal figure 8 was ascribed to Hermes-Mercury and so was the number 8 ascribed to Odin whose eight-legged steed, Sleipnir, bore him between the upper and the nether worlds. Like Mercury,




    From the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot

    with whom he is frequently identified, Odin is a master of magic. Again we encounter the black snake from the girl's dream hovering over the Magician's head. The serpent girdle, says Paul Foster Case, signifies wisdom and eternity. He emphasizes that although Mercury was a great magician and transformer, he was only a messenger of a divinity higher than himself. In his words, "the greatest magicians know themselves to be no more than channels for the Life-power." The negative aspect of the magician is the liar and the thief, the one who abuses power to exert destructive influence on others. Which brings us to the myth about Odin's theft of the mead of poetry.

    There exist two versions of this myth, one attributed to Odin himself in Sayings of the High One and a prose version in Snorri Sturluson's Edda. According to the latter, Odin shapeshifted into a snake to get at the precious mead which was kept in Hnitbjörg under the guardianship of Gunnlöd, daughter of a giant called Suttung.




    "Gunnlöd" by Anders Zorn (1860-1920)

    The name Hnitbjörg evokes a secret mountain dwelling that opens and closes automatically and contains a treasure of some sort, welcoming those who are in alliance with nature but excluding those who are not. Odin tricked his way into this womb place on false pretenses, lay with Gunnlöd for three nights, she offered him three sips of the mead but he gulped down the whole supply and ferried it to Ásgard in the guise of an eagle. In the poem it seems like he got away with the vessel itself, an act that I am tempted to define as the “first hysterectomy in the world.”

    When I first came across the myth about Odin's theft and saw that his exploit led to the paraphrasing of poetry as Odin's gain and his find, and his drink and his gift and the drink of the Æsir made available through his act, I was stunned. What about Gunnlöd, I asked myself. Where is she? What happened to her? I searched my books in vain. After this momentous event, Gunnlöd was dropped from myth. She had become a "hidden woman" nowhere to be found. Eventually I came to understand that Gunnlöd was a priestess and an incarnation of Gullveig.




    "Priestess of Delphi" by John Collier (1850-1934)

    In the poem Odin relates that Gunnlöd, sitting on a golden chair, gave him a sip of the precious mead (and I urge you to take note of the lion's feet on the Priestess’s golden tripod in this painting by John Collier). According to Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove, authors of The Wise Wound: The Myths, Realities, and Meanings of Menstruation, there are reports that not only did the sibyls allow temple snakes their first seep of blood at the cervix, but also let them lick into their ears to clear them for prophecy. In their view, "this intimate and to us almost inconceivable event would have had a religious and probably shamanistic, that is, a creative purpose." This detail throws light on the motif behind Odin's intrusion into Suttung’s place, where he lavishly extolled his own excellence. As a völva Gunnlöd would have been his mouthpiece for that speech of praise. Where Apollo usurped the oracle by piercing Python with an arrow, Odin used cunning to insinuate himself into the female psyche.

    When Odin has returned with his booty from this dangerous journey, during which he risked losing his head, he declares, in rather obscure language which nonetheless seems to conceal an important clue (in my literal translation): "A well bought color / I have well enjoyed / not much does the wise lack..." The idea of his "buying a color" has had scholars perplexed to the extent that some believe the verse to be distorted beyond salvaging. I venture that what Odin was after was "the menstrual blood of a whore" from which, according to Eirenaeus Philalethes, the alchemists knew how to extract the Royal Diadem. In alchemy the transforming solvent is referred to as tinctura (tincture), i.e. "color." And as the Philosophers' Stone itself, the panacea and ultimate goal of the Great Work, the tincture is red.

    On this heroic mission Odin went by the name Bölverkur which alludes to both his evil deed and the pain it entailed. He ruefully admits having repaid Gunnlöd with ill for her "wholeheartedness" and made her cry. We can presume that her tears were the same red gold as Freyja's. By virtue of her name Gunnlöd is "she who invites battle." That battle was fought out between Odin and a god of an older order who is but a name in the myths. It was a transition that had dire consequences for women whose creative communion with the divine was replaced by meaningless menstrual pain.

    Freyja had a daughter by Óður whose name, Hnoss, is synonymous with the "treasure hard to get." That treasure is entrusted to the menarcheal girl. It is for her to discover and reclaim for the flowering of herself and the healing of the world she inhabits.


    References:

    Case, Paul Foster. The Tarot: A Key to the Wisdom of the Ages. Richmond, VA, 1947.

    Eddukvæði (Poetic Edda). Ed. Sigurðsson, Gísli. Reykjavík, 1998.

    Grahn, Judy. Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World. Boston, 1993.

    Jung, C. G. Alchemical Studies, Vol. 13 (1976). Princeton University Press, 1983.

    Jung, C. G. Answer to Job, Vol. 2 (1958). Princeton University Press, 1991.

    Lewis, Charleton T. and Short, Charles. A Latin Dictionary. Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1879.

    Magnússon, Ásgeir Blöndal. Íslensk orðsifjabók (Icelandic Etymology). Reykjavík, 1989.

    Michaelis, Ben. Quoted on http://www.medicaldaily.com/menstruation-and-female-brain-how-fluctuating-hormone-levels-impact-cognitive-341788. Retrieved 12.11.2015.

    Moon, Beverly, ed. "The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa." An Encyclopedia of Archetypal Symbolism, vol. 1. Shambala, 1997.

    Nordal, Sigurður. Völuspá. Reykjavík, 1952.

    Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de. Le Petit Prince. Éditions Gallimard, 1946.

    "Völsunga saga" (Saga of the Völsungs). Fornaldar sögur Norðurlanda, I. Reykjavík, 1976.

    Shuttle, Penelope and Redgrove, Peter. The Wise Wound: The Myths, Realities, and Meanings of Menstruation. New York, 1988.

    Sturluson, Snorri. Edda. Reykjavík, 2003.

    Sturluson, Snorri. "Ynglinga saga" in Heimskringla, I. Reykjavík, 1979.



    Whom Does the Dream Serve?



    Presentation at The Depth of Dreams conference in Virginia Beach, held in June 2015 by the International Association for the Studies of Dreams (IASD).


    "I was drawn to the theme of menstruation by a dream." This is the opening sentence of my forthcoming book A Quest for the Mead of Poetry: Menstrual Symbolism in Icelandic Folk and Fairy Tales. Eight years prior to the dream, I'd had a hysterectomy. It may thus seem farfetched that my focus should be directed towards the function of an organ that had been removed from my body. But clearly, there was an unlived experience connected to my intimate femininity that needed to be recognized and accepted. I titled the dream "An Unexpected Gift." It was an impregnation that pushed for comprehension. In the process, I came to understand that a woman's creativity is rooted in the soil of her blood. And now the dream:


    I am in the crowded cafeteria at the university. Thorsteinn from Hamar (a poet) stands behind the counter. I ask for a cup of coffee. In addition to my order he puts out a plate with a slice of pound cake, on top of which is placed a silver key ring. I ask how much I owe and hand him a (red) note of five hundred crowns. "One hundred," he responds and takes the change of four hundred out of the register. I would have thought I should pay more, that the coffee alone was a hundred. "In that case I have the exact amount," I say and pull a (green) note of one hundred crowns from my wallet. He gives me back the note of five hundred. I pick up the silver key ring and hand it back to him. But he says no, he wants to give it to me. I am speechless. I don't feel that I can accept it. "And I who never give you anything," he says. He then takes out a silver necklace and gives it to me. I am filled with joy as I walk back to the table, but I don't show my gifts. I hope that Thorsteinn won't feel bad about that...


    While preparing for this presentation, it dawned on me that the setting of the dream is a reconstruction of my entry into adulthood. I had my first period around the time of my confirmation at age 13. Both occasions marked my initiation into the community of adults, however there was no connecting link between the two in my mind. At the heart of the official ritual was the partaking of the bread and the wine at the altar, the body and blood of Christ. This was a true test for us girls for we feared that we would not be able to get the wine and the pale and tasteless cookie down. The passion and bloodshed of Christ was totally obfuscated by our effort to keep a serious and solemn face. The hushed up bleeding from our own bodies was a more immediate preoccupation at this time in our lives.

    In the dream, a beloved poet replaces the officiating minister and serves me coffee and cake. What gives the scene away as a re-creation of my confirmation is the coffee as opposed to the red wine ministered at the altar. This, too, is a transubstantion. Here I take the initiative and ask for a cup of coffee rather than having a ritual, which did not mean anything to me, imposed from outside. What took me by the greatest surprise on the occasion of my crossing over, was the brown color of the stain in my panties. I remember staring at it in disbelief. I had never seen menstrual blood before and naturally presumed that it would be red. By asking for the brown and earthy drink, I am ready to integrate a neglected part of myself. It has been 19 years since I had the dream and I am discovering that the theme of menstruation was there in plain sight at the onset of my search for meaning. But if it had not been for the deep digging, I probably would never have seen it. As I see it now, the dream brings the sacred down to earth, the grail is to be found in our kitchen cupboards as well as in the heaven up above. The reference to the grail in the title of this presentation, which came to me spontaneously, even before I saw the cup of coffee as its earthly complement, takes on meaning. A dream needs to be grounded in order to fulfill its function, and that function, I believe, is to further the dreamer's personal growth in the service of the psychological evolution of humankind. The dreamer who heeds the dream-message will sooner or later realize that the dream has an impersonal side to it that puts him or her in a collective context. The staging of my dream in a university rather than in a Christian church, dedicated to "the one and only true god" in heaven, speaks of unity within a universe which is the home of life in all its manifestations.

    I had the dream one year after I graduated from the university where I had studied the poems of Thorsteinn from Hamar, whom I held in high esteem. In retrospect I believe it was his preoccupation with silence, the "silent, hidden, archaic, behind all that is..." that held me captive. "What is this silence he is talking about?" the teacher asked. No one ventured forth with an answer. Wisely the teacher left it at that. But by asking he had planted a seed.

    My immediate association to the necklace given to me by the poet was Freyja's legendary necklace called Brísingamen. It held such a strong attraction for me that the rest of the dream receded into the background. I felt a deep affinity with this goddess of love and fertility, and in particular with her aspect as völva. Völva is Icelandic for a seeress or a sibyl, a word that is seemingly derived from Lat. volva, vulva, which coincidentally - or maybe not - means 'womb'. And so does the name Delphi, where the oracle resided, derive from the Gr. delphus which also means 'womb'. The fact that the oracle operated but one day a month has given rise to the speculation that it was connected to the Pythias' menstruation. Iceland was officially Christianized in the year 1000, but already in the preceding century, the völvas' practice, which involved ecstatic communion with the otherworld, had become a crime that was severly punished by law. Most often those women were stoned to death or else they would be burned at the stake. In other words, the völva's voice was silenced. She was driven under ground.

    To elucidate my dream, I turned to the tale about Freyja's acquisition of the necklace:

    She comes to a stone and finds that it is open. It turns out to be the smithy of four dwarfs who are forging a gold necklace. She is attracted to it, she offers to pay for it with gold and silver and precious objects, but the dwarfs will let her have it only if she lies one night with each. She surrenders herself and obtains the treasure.

    I was greatly disturbed. I knew in my heart that my dream-necklace was in some meaningful way connected to that of Freyja's and I was put off by the way she was described. One scholar reported the rumor that she had sold her virginity for a gold necklace. She was presented as a whore. The above account was committed to vellum by two catholic priests in the late l4th century and is the only existing version of the goddess's aquisition of Brísingamen. There exist however obscure mythological fragments alluding to its theft, which indicate that the tale about Freyja's sexual affair is rooted in a lost myth. And a lost myth bespeaks silencing and repression.

    7 years after the dream, I was invited to write about Freyja for The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism (ARAS) in New York. This is where I had a major breakthrough. The key, I discovered, was in the name of the necklace. Brísingamen is a compound, the first half of which means fire while the latter part men is identical to the moon root men. As men means 'necklace' or 'pendant' in Icelandic, scholars have overlooked the role of the moon in their myriad attempts to elucidate the meaning of the goddess's necklace. In a flash of insight I saw the image of a solar eclipse in this ancient symbol, the union of the heavenly bodies of the sun and the moon brought down to earth:




    Annular solar eclipse captured by the Japanese-American Hinode satellite on Jan. 4th 2011.
    credit: Hinode/XRT


    "As in Norse mythology Sun is feminine and Moon masculine, Freyja’s adventure conjures up an image of the descending sun who abandons herself in the dissolving embrace of the moon in its dark phase, her red embers bleeding from under his coalblack disk, arranged in a flaming necklace." (quote from Freyja)


    It was this discovery that led me to the theme of menstruation. Consequently I wrote an entry on the subject for The Book of Symbols, compiled by ARAS. The point of departure was this image from 18th century India which openly celebrates the menstrual moment and female sexuality.



    It seemed clear to me that the double necklace on the woman's nude body was more than a mere decoration. The contours of the outer necklace allude to her vagina. The inner piece looks like a sunburst and probably refers to the menstrual blood ejaculated by the cervix, the neck of her womb.



    If we compare this image to a sketch of the female sexual organs, we see a correspondence between the neck and the cervix, between the face and the uterus, and the undulations extending from her head represent the horn-like fallopian tubes. The sculpture brings her hidden sexual organs into the open in the guise of a jewel. Her impassive but intent mien, the wide-open eyes, the sunbursts adorning her ears, suggest to me that her senses are focused on the internal menstrual event. She is squatting, as if giving birth to herself as a sexually ripe woman. This evocative image supported my understanding of Freyja's acquisition of Brísingamen as an initiation myth.

    Much later, or rather recently as a matter of fact, I happened on a quote from the 17th century alchemist Philaletes that threw a bright light on the priests' portrayal of Freyja while confirming my feeling that there was a strong alchemical undercurrent in our mythological material. Philaletes states that the alchemists knew how to "extract the Royal Diadem from the menstrual blood of a whore." It seemed to me ironic that man's (alchemists were mostly male) raw material for the alchemical Opus was projected on the most intimate female nature, while great many women have turned their back on the natural power invested in them. We all crave to discover our true selves, but to find the prima materia in which lies dormant the seed of the highest good is no easy matter, for it tends to be something that we do not want to see as belonging to ourselves. In the words of Carl Jung, it is "the most despised and rejected thing." And I ask, what is more despised and rejected in our culture than menstruation or a whore? Eventually, I came to understand that in the spiritual sense a whore was someone who called upon other gods than the Lord of the Bible. As völva, Freyja was guilty of spiritual adultery.

    I was about to enter Jungian analysis at the time I had the dream. In hindsight, it is easy to see how the money exchanging hands hints at the alchemical process that lay in front of me.



    The red note of five hundred which I pull out at the beginning, has the highest value. In the context of alchemy, the number 5 refers to the prima materia in which the World Soul, the Anima Mundi, is hidden. The breaking of the five into four and one is reflective of the analytical process, in which an unconscious unity needs to be broken up and re-ordered into a unity on a higher or a more mature level. The fact that the poet hands the red note back to me, I take to mean that the process could not be hurried. This is emphasized by the fact that I am not ready to show my gifts. 16 years would go by before I felt the impulse to send a poem in for a competition. When I got a call telling me that my poem had won, it felt like a natural fulfillment of the dream. But as I was to discover, this distinction was not an end but rather the beginning of a new cycle. I was scanning the bank notes for this presentation when I realized that I had never noticed the illustrations on their reverse. The note of 500 shows a writer and a freedom fighter at his desk while the note of 100 portrays a monk illuminating a manuscript. It was a moving discovery. The monk's occupation was a reflection of my prolonged soul searching, while the freedom fighter on the red note sounds a call for action.

    When the theme of menstruation had fallen into my lap, I wondered how it was treated in the folk tale. And that was a moment of truth. In the six volumes of Icelandic folk and fairy tales there was but one tale, "The Witch's Ride", that dealt with menstrual blood in plain terms. I was thunderstruck by the silence that stared me in the eye. At the same time it dawned on me how uncritically I had bought into my culture's negative stance toward menstruation. Enlightened by Freyja's Brísingamen, I realized that the mysterious flow was concealed in symbolic language.

    A stanza in an Eddic poem, put in the mouth of Thor, was particularly revealing of patriarchy's repressive methods toward women who followed in Freyja's footsteps. "I went east," Thor boasts, "and battered giants / evil brides, / who went to the rock." Thor was a patriarchal god of thunder who kept the giants in check by smashing their heads with his legendary hammer. I was elaborating on this brutal image when the dream's superior logic suddenly revealed itself to me. The name of my dream poet is Thorsteinn from Hamar. Hamar means 'cliff' and refers to the name of the farm where the poet grew up and with which he associates himself. The dwarfs from whom Freyja got her necklace had their abode in a stone, so there was a connection between my dream poet and the dwarfs. Adding to this, hamar also means 'hammer' so here was a connection with Thor's fearful weapon. To fill in the picture, the poet's given name, Thor-steinn, is a compound, the first half of which makes him the namesake of Thor and the latter part means 'stone'. Like being hit by lightening, I understood that the silver necklace the poet gave to me was an offer of reconciliation from my inner oppressor. And now I could finally understand the pun intended by the unasked for slice of pound cake that Thorsteinn puts in front of me with a silver key ring on top of it. Humor is the last thing I would have associated with the Thor presented to us in the myths. To drive the message further home, my name is a compound meaning 'stone' and 'she who is loved'. I take that to mean that I am 'she who is loved in the stone'. My task, the dream seemed to say, was to find her in me.

    I will close with these two very different renditions of the Tarot-Chariot.



    On the left we see an intense and chastising Thor dashing through the skies with his hammer aloft in a chariot pulled by two he-goats. The heroic masculinity of the charioteer is emphasized, but of course the card could just as well represent a woman who has made of her menstruating womb an enemy whom she fights with all her might. Aptly, this card is from a deck called Tarot of Northern Shadows. The one on the right is from The Robin Wood Tarot. It exudes the soothing feeling of harmony between the forces of darkness and light, which paves the way for the music of the heart. This charioteer has an androgynous aura. This, to me, is the poet who gives voice to the unfathomable truths of nature. It is the dreamer, the völva.

    Dreaming and menstruation share the the common trait of being independent of the will of man. For the sake of our health and wellbeing, we seem to be best served by opening up to and working with the natural flux that courses through us. Fighting against it or dismissing it with disdain, turns it into an enemy like the PMS or a nightmare.



    Sources and references:

    Jung, C. G. 1993. Psychology and Alchemy. Princeton University Press.

    Lewis, Charleton T. And Short, Charles. 1879. A Latin Dictionary. Oxford at the Clarendon Press.

    Neumann, Eric. 1954. “On the Moon and Matriarchal Consciousness.” Spring.

    Place, Robert M. 2011. Alchemy and the Tarot. Hermes Publications, NY.

    Ragnheidardottir, Hallfridur J. 2003. “Freyja.” www.dreamsandtarot.is

    Ragnheidardottir, Hallfridur J. 2010. “Menstruation.” The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images. Ed. Ami Ronnberg. Taschen.

    Ragnheidardottir, Hallfridur J. 2016. Quest for the Mead of Poetry: Menstrual Symbolism in Icelandic Folk and Fairy Tales. Chiron Publications, Asheville, NC.

    Shuttle, Penelope and Redgrove, Peter. 1988. The Wise Wound: The Myths, Realities, and Meanings of Menstruation. Grove Press, NY.


    Illustration from Tarot of Northern Shadows reproduced by permission of the company © 1997 AGM AGMuller Urania, Switzerland. Further reproduction prohibited.

    Illustration from The Robin Wood Tarot "©1991 Robin Wood" by permission of Robin Wood.



    Threshold Experience of the Girl-Child



    Presentation at the Fragile Subjects: Childhood in Literature, Arts and Medicine conference, held by the University of Turku in August 2015.


    "The chord struck at a girl’s first flow reverberates through her subsequent cycles. It can become her key to the music of being or throw her into discord with her own self." This is a quote from my entry on Menstruation in The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images. In this presentation, I will explore the experiences of two young girls who find themselves on the threshold of womanhood. One is the protagonist of a folk tale staged in rural Iceland at the beginning of the 18th century, the other is a 13 year old contemporary American girl who is the protagonist of her own dream. But first I would like to touch briefly on my initiation into this subject.

    I was writing about Freyja, Norse goddess of love and fertility, when the theme of menstruation pushed unexpectedly to the fore, much like the flow takes a young girl by surprise at her first bleeding. It was the goddess' legendary necklace, called Brísingamen, that opened my eyes to the creative fountain at the root of this feminine issue. Brísingamen, I discovered, conceals in its name the union of the Sun and the Moon as seen in an eclipse, her red embers bleeding from under his coal black disk in a flaming necklace. In Norse mythology, the sun is feminine and the moon masculine, as you see reflected in these images from the Norse Tarot.



    The account of Freyja's acquisition of Brísingamen, prompted me to see this union as the celestial ccounterpart of a girl's initiation into womanhood - in accordance with the hermetic dictum "as above so below" - and the necklace as an image of the red gold lacing the neck of her womb. Freyja set an example for the initiate. By embracing her menstrual nature, she acquired a treasure. She personified the menstrual, courageous, and creative aspect of woman. But then, Freyja was dethroned and replaced by the submissive Mary, mother of Christ.

    Consequently I wrote the entry on "Menstruation" to which I referred at the beginning. The text was grounded in this image of a menstruating female from 18th century India.



    It seemed clear to me that the double necklace on her nude body was more than a mere decoration. The contours of the outer necklace allude to her vagina. The inner piece looks like a sunburst and probably refers to the menstrual blood ejaculated by the cervix, the neck of her womb.



    If we compare this image to a sketch of the female sexual organs, we see a correspondence between the neck and the cervix, between the face and the uterus, and the undulations extending from her head represent the horn-like fallopian tubes. Her impassive but intent mien, the wide-open eyes, the sunbursts adorning her ears, suggest to me that her senses are focused on the internal menstrual event. The composition moved me to understand that a woman's spiritual blossoming, as symbolized by the flower above her head, is rooted in the soil of her blood. She is squatting, as if giving birth to herself as a sexually ripe woman. The sculpture brings her hidden sexual organs into the open in the guise of a jewel. Her challenge is to appropriate the beauty and magic of her sexual makeup for the flowering of her self.

    Contrasting this open celebration of the menstrual flux, is the secrecy and shame surrounding the issue in western culture. When I had unearthed the meaning of Freyja's necklace, I set out to dig into my folkloric heritage and discovered that the flow of my ancestresses was disguised in symbolic language. And this brings us to the Icelandic folk tale "The 'Hidden Woman' in Hafnanúpur," which is said be a true story. (In Icelandic folk belief, the 'hidden people' are a race of nature beings whom most of us cannot see with our mortal eyes).

    The opening line takes us right into the patriarchal society of its time: "In the early 18th century a farmer by the name of Sigurd lived at Hafnir on Skagi." This farmer had a wife and four children, three boys and a girl named Thorunn. The boys, who are but names in this tale, are said to have been boisterous and with a heathen mindset, while

    "their sister was very pretty, courteous and skilful. She was gentle and kind so that everybody loved her dearly, and she was considered to possess in every respect the qualities of an ideal wife. One autumn, so it is said, she was looking for her father’s lambs. She did not find the lambs, and when night had fallen and darkness set in she decided to turn back home. She walked along Hafnanúpur (a mountain peak), on the eastern side. Looking at a belt of crags in the peak, she sees an open door in the rock. (Here the storyteller switches to the present tense, as if to highlight the moment of revelation). Light burns on a lamp by a bed in this abode and a handsome woman, clad in blue, sits on a chair near the light. She was doing needlework and looked out to Thorunn with a friendly mien, but the maiden was overcome with fear and took to her feet as fast as she could. Nonetheless she looked back. Then she felt that the woman sent her a wrathful glance and at that, the door closed. Now Thorunn got lost and did not make it home that evening. The next day she was searched for but was not found. On the third day she was at last found by a river called Hafnaá. There she lay asleep or in some sort of a trance. She was then transported home, but when she awoke she was half-deranged and her face distorted. She never became the same as before, neither as regarded her looks nor temperament."

    What gave this tale away to me as a tale of initiation was its structural resemblance to "Sleeping Beauty", which the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim interpreted as symbolic of a girl's transition into sexual adulthood. In his book, The Uses of Enchantment, Bettelheim expounds his idea of fairy tales as a tool for teaching children how to deal with tabooed issues of the sort. If the folk tale is rooted in a live experience, as it is said to be, it has been amplified by formulas and mythological motifs, that fit its context, as it circulated from mouth to mouth. To begin with, Thorunn's lofty character description is practically identical with that of Sleeping Beauty's, an ideal imprinted on the impressionable minds of young girls. The uninvited vision of the blue-clad woman in the mountain cave echoes the intrusion of 13th fairy, who can be seen to represent the 13th moon of the lunar calendar of our agricultural ancestors, which accorded with the menstrual cycle. An unimpregnated woman menstruates 13 times a year. You remember that the king could not invite the 13th fairy because he had only 12 gold plates, which again would have symbolized the 12 months of the solar year. Like the 13th fairy, the 'hidden woman' has been excommunicated and driven underground. And like the spinster in the tower, she is engaged in creative work, holding a needle that stings like the fatal spindle rod on which Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger. And sure enough, Thorunn falls asleep, albeit for a mere three days as opposed to the hundred years in the timeless fairy tale. But where the fairy tale princess approaches the spinster fearlessly, Thorunn runs away from the blue-clad woman in terror. Yet she looks back and that proves to be her demise.

    The tale shows that it is our attitude towards nature that determines whether we experience it as benevolent or malevolent. At first sight, Thorunn feels that the 'hidden woman' looks out to her with a friendly mien, but when fear takes hold of her, the woman in the mount turns into a noxious being. Nature itself is neutral. The same is true of menstruation. If the girl embraces her flow as a precious gift, she will have a powerful ally in the goddess within, whom Thorunn projects on the woman in the mountain cave. A girl cannot run away from her nature. Treating it as an enemy does damage to her being. But Thorunn was a child of her time. In the History of Icelandic Literature, the 18th century is described thus: “The emphasis in religious books and sermons was on god’s ire. According to those, nature was poisonous and filled with temptations, repulsive and dangerous, prey to satan and his devils.” Thorunn would have imbibed this powerful message from the pulpit. The fact that she looks back, implies a tabooed attraction exemplified by the story of Lot's wife, who looked back to Sodom and was turned into a pillar of salt. With this historical stage in mind, we can imagine the terror of a young girl who found herself in the dark, literally and metaphorically, as she came face to face with her feminine nature.

    The symbolism of the lamb puts the tale into a Christian context. Thorunn is searching for her father’s lambs the evening of the apparition. She does not find the lambs, gets lost herself, is searched for but is not really found again for she is no longer who she was. There is an underlying parallel between Thorunn and the lambs. The lamb is a virginal image. White, young and graceful it is a symbol of innocence and purity. It is a symbol for Christ.



    In early Christian iconography the lamb took the place of the body of Christ on the cross, the innocent sacrificed for our sins. Sometimes it appears “stretched on the ground, with blood flowing.” In the shadow of this image, Thorunn, an innocent maiden who has become "victim" of feminine nature, lies in a coma by a river that bears the name of the ‘hidden woman’s’ peak. To the poets of old, for whom the earth was a living being, a river was the 'blood of the earth'. This poetic paraphrase may be our key to the menstrual theme hidden in this tale named for a 'hidden woman'.

    Many tribal societies celebrate crossing into womanhood with a ritual. It may serve to “mold” the girl into the conventional role of wife and mother, and this is clearly the role that Thorunn has been brought up for. But in other cases the initiation rite may put the girl's individual and spiritual needs to the fore. She may be subjected to a solitary quest for a dream or vision that will point to her path in life, and perhaps grant her a guardian spirit or a power animal as well. In those societies the community takes an active interest in the girl's experience and helps her channel it. Given the collective fear of a devil-possessed nature in 18th century Iceland, such guidance was not available to Thorunn. But would a 13 year old contemporary American girl be in a better position? Let's look at her dream:


    I am on a deserted beach that stretches out in every direction. Everything is gray. I'm on my knees on a sofa, looking over the side arm, and the tide is coming in rolling under the sofa, then back out again. When it washes out I see a huge black snake slithering under the sofa in a figure 8. The tide keeps washing in and out, and the snake keeps swimming under the sofa. It's so big that the edges of the 8 shape are sticking out from under the couch on all four sides. I am terrified of it and can't get off the couch. It seems like the dream was really long and this was all that happened in the whole thing, just the snake swimming over and over and me trapped on the couch.


    Just as Thorunn was on the threshold between worlds, the dream puts this dreamer on the border between land and sea where, symbolically, the meeting of the conscious and the unconscious takes place. While Thorunn experienced the danger as coming from outside of herself, in this case it has become an internal threat. The dream was on the agenda of an online dream course in which I participated in 2011. We did however not have a chance to explore it due to lack of time. The dream had a profound impact on me and I sought permission from the anonymous dreamer to include it in my reflections on menstruation. The permission was obtained through a third party, so I did not have direct contact with the dreamer, but I did learn that she had dreamed the dream twenty years prior to its being brought to the group. This, it seemed to me, was testimony to the deep impression it had made on the girl. The dreamer's terror was immediately obvious but only later did her posture, with its implied reverence, impress itself on me. She is on her knees as she comes face to face with the impersonal power of nature. The dream reflects the cosmic rhythm of which her menstrual cycle is a part. And that cosmic implication ties in with the eternity symbol of the horizontal figure 8, embodied by the snake.

    The snake symbol figures in myths all over the world. Here it emerges from the unconscious of a girl, who belongs to an era that considers itself far removed from its mythological origins. In Genesis, God decreed an enmity between woman and the snake. Much like the snake that slithers under the sofa in the girl's dream, this tale about humanity's loss of innocence, due to disobedience, is an undercurrent in the Judeo-Christian mindset. To the ancients the snake was a symbol of wisdom. It's kinship with the womb was recognized as both shed their skin to renew themselves, and so, too, does the moon, that rules the tides, shed its old self to be reborn. The spell in the Garden of Eden drove a wedge between woman and her womb, whose rhythm is lunar. She shall suffer in childbirth, the Lord decreed, and she shall suffer in menstruation. A girl's awakening Eros, her sexual drive that fuels her creativity, shall be turned toward a husband who shall rule over her.

    If we consider the tribal belief, that a dream or a vision at the time of transition will point to a girl's path in life and grant her a guardian spirit or a power animal, how could we apply such an interpretation to this dream of a 13 year old child? Maybe she was being called to transform the age old curse into a gift? For that to happen, though, she would need to be receptive to her wild serpent nature and channel it into creative acts or deeds, while simultaneously transforming herself into a blossoming individual.

    In his book, The Tarot: A Key to the Wisdom of the Ages, Paul Foster Case explains that the horizontal figure 8 is an "ancient occult number ascribed to Hermes," a Greek god of transitions and boundaries. The Roman god Mercury shared traits with Hermes, to the extent that in the minds of men they came to designate the same mythical being. Both were seen as messengers of the gods, and as such they were bringers of dreams. To this explanation Case adds, "this horizontal 8 is also a symbol of the Holy Spirit."



    The Tarot card attributed to Strength and the number 8, might be relevant to the young girl's dream. Like myths and dreams, Tarot cards display universal images, which mirror human potential and can form a bridge to our authentic selves. The Strength card shows a woman taming a lion that seemingly stands for her instinctual fiery nature. Like a musician playing her instrument, she gently controls the animal's mouth. Her hold on the devouring mouth emphasizes, that she does not let herself be swallowed by her fears and passions; rather does she draw strength from her animal nature. The transformation of animal fire into a garland and a crown of roses is telling of her blossoming creativity. And over her head hovers the black snake that the 13 year old encountered in her dream. Attributed to this Tarot card is the Hebrew letter Teth, which means 'snake'. In the words of Paul Foster Case, it is a "symbol of what has been known among occultists for ages as the 'serpent-power'." This could be useful information for a young girl who is terrified of the power that resides in her.

    What those two girls living three centuries apart have in common is aloneness and fear. Both the tale and the dream make us aware that guidance is called for, so a girl can make a successful transition and become a fruitful individual with roots in herself. The negative or dismissive stance toward menstruation has become second nature to us. We do our best to hide its primal power, not realizing that we may be robbing young girls of their natural gifts, which, it is my belief, could be a revolutionary force in the service of an endangered planet.



    Sources and references:

    Árnason, Jón. 1958. Íslenzkar þjóðsögur og ævintýri, III. Reykjavík.

    Bettleheim, Bruno. 1989. “The Sleeping Beauty.” The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1975). Vintage Books, NY.

    Charbonneau-Lassay, Louis. 1992. The Bestiary of Christ (1940). Arkana Books.

    Case, Paul Foster. 1947. The Tarot: A Key to the Wisdom of the Ages. Richmond, VA.

    Høst, Annette. “The Gifts of the 13th Fairy.” Blessed by the Moon: Initiation into Woomanhood. http://www.shamanism.dk

    Ragnheidardottir, Hallfridur J. 2003. “Freyja.” www.dreamsandtarot.is

    Ragnheidardottir, Hallfridur J. 2010. “Menstruation.” The Book of Symbols. Ed. Ami Ronnberg. Taschen.

    Ragnheidardottir, Hallfridur J. A Quest for the Mead of Poetry: Menstrual Symbolism in Icelandic Folk and Fairy Tales. To be published by Chiron Publications.

    Sæmundsson, Matthías Viðar. 1996. “Upplýsingaröld 1750-1840.” Íslensk bókmenntasaga, 3. Reykjavík.