Ko Papatūānuku te whaea o te whenua – Papatūānuku is the earth mother
As I enter the marae-atea, the sacred open space in the front of the wharenui, the traditional Maori meeting house, I feel already the process of transformation taking place. I hear the voice of our haukainga, Maori host, inviting us to come together in preparation for the karanga - the ceremony of calling to the guests, to welcome us onto the marae. He is inviting us to leave behind any mis/pre/conceptions we have of the indigenous ways of seeing the world around us, and dive deep into another space, full of symbolism of the sacred feminine.
It is a delicate, early spring afternoon, after days of non-stop rain. The large yellow flowers of the Kōwhai tree, heralding spring, add a tint to the translucent, timid almost light that surrounds us. I am standing on the grass, in bare feet, listening to our host requesting us to acknowledge nature, whenua, the elements and I instinctively place my hands in a triangle shape just below my belly button, attuning myself to whatever it is that is happening around me, through this man’s invocation.
I am drawing energy from Papatūānuku, mother earth, the sacred dragon, inviting the serpent to climb up into my body through my legs. I am mystified. Where are these thoughts and the obeying of the body coming from? I am in some kind of cosmic flow.
The haukainga’s voice acts both as an anchoring presence and a guiding force to something new… he is now talking about the nearby Wairaka stream, its sacredness and its ability to nurture and heal people. I am drawn more and more into another dimension that is opening up to me like a revelation. How is it possible that what I already know is felt like a new experience? Perhaps it’s ‘the feeling’ that makes the difference rather than just ‘the knowing’?
We are all now walking in formation towards the Wharenui. The kaikaranga’s voice acts as a compass:
ki nga ope tūārangi
Kua eke nei
Ki te marae e te iwi e
The young Maori woman in dreadlocks leading us into the Wharenui is visibly emotional, tears streaming down her face, making an effort to contain her sobbing. I feel what she feels, the connection with the ancestors bringing up, from deep in the subconscious, our need to belong, to be part of a continuum that gives meaning to our lives.
I, the visitor, become a guest on the marae. I am given birth into my new status, but only because the vagina---represented by the carved entrance to the Wharenui--- “aggressively, lovingly and soulfully-- earthily and spiritually”- strips me of all remaining tapu from my accumulated life to that moment.
“Transformed by the ancestor’s digestive and sexual orifices, people grow into new relationships and therefore new people.” Entering this beautifully carved building is like entering the vagina, where the masculine---represented here by the procession led by the kaikaranga and us the guests--- meets the feminine and gives birth to a new self, a rebirth or recreation of the self. Once I go through the doors and into this space, I hear our host say, I am expected to come out transformed, in the manner of “I will not be the same again.”
I love this metaphor and it amuses me somewhat when I realize the synchronicity, involved in this unexpected ceremony. For just the night before, I had fallen asleep listening to a piece of music by Neonymus, recorded in the Neanderthal Cave of San Pelayo, after spending my evening reading a chapter from a book on the Healing Power of the Sacred Woman that talked about the need for women and humanity to reclaim the sacred vagina, the mother earth, the feminine, subjugated by patriarchy for thousands of years.
Neonymus’ music was very evocative with sounds coming from deep within the earth, echoing the planetary womb. I was reminded then that just a few days earlier, while traveling abroad, I had bought an agate crystal, cut in a big round thin sliver that brought out translucent rich reds and oranges and yellows, all in a concentric formation resembling a sperm like looking head entering the egg in the uterus. I bought it because of its colours but also because of its symbolism, the coming together of the feminine and the masculine forces of life.
Could this be one of those synchronicity cases Jung talked about, where our subconscious seems to attract situations that on the outside they look arbitrarily thrown together but upon close inspection you discover a linking thread that makes the events part of the same story; a story that is still unfolding and where serendipity comes to play a role?
The voice of our host brings me back. The process of transformation is complete, I hear him saying, with the mingling of breath, when tangata whenua - the people of the land - and us, the manuhiri (guests) hongi (press noses together); and when we share food after entering the body of the shared tipuna via the ancestral mouth/vagina represented by the meeting house. “We eat having been eaten!”
The visualization of this cannibalistic sounding act is so powerfully earthy that I long to be taken in by the ancestral mouth, devoured by mother earth, enclosed by the deep dark inner sanctum of the sacred feminine and being transformed.
Welcome to Aotearoa, I whisper to myself. In a few days, I am going to be at another ceremony, a civic one this time that will confirm my New Zealand citizenship. But I feel this spiritual ceremony is what binds me now to Aotearoa and the tangata whenua; the day I experience my own entry into the ancestral vaginal mouth and reclaim my own sacred feminine power.
Three days after this symbolic and deeply affecting event, I agreed to an impromptu day trip to Bethells Beach, an iconic seascape near Auckland. It was a wet spring day. While at the beach the weather held dry but still moody and heavy cast with a light breeze. We walked towards the far end where there is a big cave. My friend turned to me to ask if I was “ready to brave it.” I was not sure. A few years back – it must have been three years ago - she had taken me there knowing that I have a natural dislike to enclosed spaces, especially caves. Although I had reluctantly agreed to follow her in, it was with a terrible sense of uneasiness and once inside I fought an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia that was almost nauseating. This time, she let me brave it on my own, perhaps sensing that I can do it myself, without holding my hand as she did the first time. I walked all the way into the far lower end of the cave and sat in the darkness feeling completely at ease with my surroundings. I felt cocooned and protected, the silence surrounding me a natural, empty and yet pregnant with energy space. Could it be that by entering the sacred vagina at the Marae, I symbolically acknowledged my feminine side and made amends with it? Perhaps the haukainga was right, once you enter the Marae’s vagina you are never the same again.
Three months later, I went back to the Marae to talk to Whaea L about my looming operation. She is known to be a wise Maori elder, well respected for her indigenous grounded spirituality and healer’s touch. I started talking about my Marae experience and the exploration of the indigenous concept of the vagina and femaleness, crucial elements I felt to my health-related issues. She abruptly stood up, asked me to wait for her for a few minutes while she went to her car to bring something she felt it was meant to be shared with me. What she brought back was a gray blanket she was given to as a child full of personal and collective symbolism. I was perplexed, a blanket? Once she unfolded it, I understood. I saw photos of landscapes pinned to the fabric. Perhaps it was our talk about vaginas but that's all I could see in them. The entry and exit point of a tunnel into a mountain that indeed looked like the opening of a woman’s body. Whaea L explained that this was of part her childhood’s landscape, the photos were taken from her ancestral land. The tunnel was carved by her great-great uncle for the women of his iwi, a place to perform their monthly ritual passage through the darkness of mother earth, Papatūānuku, and into the light and the sea for cleansing on the other side.
I felt drawn to this landscape, wishing I could have performed that passage myself when I most needed it, remembering with regret how my own passage to womanhood went unnoticed, filled first with fear and then apprehension at the appearance of that first blood through my legs. My eldest sister gave me a sanitary pad while providing kindly but with the briefest of explanations, “Ah, that! You just got your first period.” And that’s what my passage to womanhood was all about, an uneventful moment that did not even merit a chat with my mother who feeling exhausted by her demanding job was, I am sure, relieved to hear that the ‘incident’ was dealt with by her eldest daughter. No ritual passage, no ceremony, no celebration in a household full of women. And what followed was years of the convenience store woman wrapping up the sanitary pads in newspaper so the men sitting in the little town’s square would not see what I was carrying. Years of being excused from going to church or having holy communion on those Sundays blood run through my legs, always wondering why God created women if ‘HE’ disliked them so much. But that was a male God and that explained it all.
visuals * cave (author) ** agate (author) *** Bertaartgal.com