Welcome to Transformative Healing Dolls BLOG
More or less monthly posts about Transformative Healing Dolls
Symbols and symbolic language-developing your own personal language
Symbols and symbolic language has always intrigued me. When I was an art therapist, I tried to understand the symbols in the art of the troubled children I worked with. Struggling with painful realities and often unable to process what they were going through, these children found ways to express and release their troubles through their art. There were a lot of sports figures (the Chicago Bulls logo featured heavily) and many representations of Sadaam Hussein, representations of good and evil in their drawings, paintings and sculptures. But at times, their imagery veered into imaginary territory, with fantastical animals and dream-like landscapes.
My interest in symbolism goes way before my years as an art therapist. When I was little, I remember I once had what felt like an auspicious dream. In a beautiful mountainous landscape I saw a strange, huge set of runes (symbolic language) in the sky. It felt eerie and full of portent but I didn't understand it. This dream stayed with me for a long time, but I never could figure out what it meant. I didn’t know what it meant and I can’t remember it well enough now to look it up. The more I get familiar with my own art, I can see that most of the symbols are the same ones recurring again and again. No more symbols hanging in the sky but once in a while new ones show up and that is always interesting.
Harkening back to a pre-verbal time, a time of symbolism and deep meaning
One of the things that intrigues me most about symbolic language is that it harkens back to a preverbal time. Too long, our culture has denigrated societies that still have connection to this rich symbolic well of meaning, such as Native Americans, and the indigenous populations of places such as the Northwest of the Americas, ie: Canada and Alaska and Australia and New Zealand. And of course, cultures like the Celts. What would it be like to reconnect to a time when we as humans had a direct experience of the spiritual world, not mediated by our left brained language?
Bears, snakes, turtles, the “Green Man,” elephants. These are a few of the symbols that have shown up frequently in my paintings and dolls. Some of these are very powerful and show up not just in my art but in my life in general. For instance-the turtle has been with me for a long time. I have long been drawn to the turtle and turtles have shown up in my dreams and in my art. My home altar is full of turtles. I'm most drawn to sea turtles for their facility in land and water and their ability to survive long distances and to dive deep into murky waters. According to the book, Animal Speak: the Spiritual and Magical Powers of Creatures Great and Small, among many other things, "the turtle was an animal whose magic could help you unite heaven and earth within your own life." (see symbol above.)
I love being able to discover new facets of the same symbol over time. Newer symbols are the giraffes, a white goat/sheep and a green bird. Here are some examples of these newer images in my paintings. The giraffe, in the first two images, has a feeling of protectiveness to me. Both images have a lot more going on in them, including the made up symbolic language in the first one. According to Animal Speak, "the long neck..makes it a powerful totem for farsightedness and for seeing what lies on the horizon for you." Hmmm? The white goat in the second two images suggests to me, the ability to navigate difficult terrain but there is also a playfulness to it. And the green bird, in the last two images has a feeling of magic and protection. In both images, the green is balanced with purple-colors have important meaning as well. To me, green has to do with life and life energy and purple is associated with magic. From reading these brief descriptions of my response to some of the symbolism in my work, you can get a sense of how individualized their meanings can be. And, as I said, the meanings can change and morph over time, even within the same image. Sometimes I look back on an old image or doll and new meanings emerge that I didn't see at first.
PS, these don't have titles yet. If you have a good idea for a title, let me know. They are all from various handmade journals and painted with gouache and watercolor crayons.
Hand of Mysteries
Recently I have been working on a series of talisman dolls. I intend to make eight over time. I'll be writing more about these in a future post. These are also inspiration for the Maiden, Mother, Crone, Death course that I am offering, starting in March. Each of the dolls starts from the same two sided soft sculpture pattern but each time I am led in very different directions in the way I create them. For one of the dolls, I used as inspiration an image of a sculpture of a hand with little figures on each finger, that I saw in the Sackler Museum here in DC. This sculpture intrigued me but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it.
Later, in researching this symbol of a hand with little saints on each finger, I found this Mexican painting called "Mano Poderosa," and was intrigued by the similarities. I then found a different image of a hand with mysterious alchemical symbols on each finger, called the "Hand of Mystery." I’m not sure if these two are related but for my doll, I combined the two. I wasn’t so much concerned with the “true” meaning of the symbol. I just liked the idea of these mysterious symbols. For this blog post, I tried to look up the meaning of the alchemical symbols and was only able to find three of them. Salt, nitrogen, sal ammoniac. What I was able to figure out was that these were various elements that would have been used in an alchemical process to create the transformation required. And I learned that the “hand of mysteries” with its additional symbols of a key, lantern, sun, star and crown had to do with a series of steps that helped to transform human into divine. It turned out that this fit with the theme of my doll. I enjoy the way in which the symbols that occur in my art can be woven into mysterious images from the past. Discovering new meanings in this way, I am able to deepen the meanings of my dolls and paintings.
Some examples of runes, sigils and other symbolic languages
There are many sources for symbolic language that can be used as inspiration in your art. Sometimes I just make them up too, in the way that I remember making up languages as a child. And my children did this too. Did you do this as a child? I want to be respectful of the origins of these words and at the same time honor them in my own creations. The image to the left is of Viking runes. Runes are an alphabet that can be adapted for magical purposes. Sigils are created specifically for their magical purposes. As I mentioned, you can use ones that you find in any brief review on the internet or you can make up your own. I am just skimming over the top of a very detailed and complicated subject but I encourage you to do your own research if you are interested.
Ancient goddess bodies as symbols and source
Take a look at these original sculptures of goddesses from ancient times. In the wonderful book, Way of the Rose: The Radical Path of the Divine Feminine Hidden in the Rosary, which describes the rosary as having originated in symbolism such as these ancient goddess bodies, the authors describe how these ancient goddess sculptures were usually quite small. Instead of meant for display, the were intended to be held in the hand, carried as talisman of support and protection.
This reminds me of the story that recently came out in the NYTimes (of course it was out much longer than that but this was when it first came to my attention) that contrary to what had been previously been assumed, it was not men who created most of the cave paintings that have been discovered in places like France and Greece. It turns out that more than half of these paintings were created by women. I am not sure how they were able to figure this out, but what an amazing discovery. To me, it confirms the idea that early, preverbal societies were matriarchal and mostly peaceful. And that instead of focusing on war and struggle, the paintings they created were about mothers and babies (animal and human), representations of nature and of a mother goddess.
These sculptures with their earthy shapes could also be an inspiration for a symbol of mother earth and of nurturance and protection. They also serve as an antidote to the overly skinny models of feminine figures that are forced upon us in modern society.
Some links to artist friends whose use of symbolism in their art inspire me
I wanted to end with sharing some links to art by friends of mine. Sometimes I am so amazed at the people I know and am inspired by. When you look at their art and imagery, consider what symbolic language they are using. What can you notice about their symbolic language? What is revealed/concealed?
Julie Dziekiewitz, makes encaustic paintings that speak out for women's rights. Her large wax paintings are colorful and engaging and full of meaningful symbols, both political and personal. Look for the different ways sharks show up in her paintings.
Sybil Archibald I've written about Sybil before but if you haven't already taken a look at her work, please do go and look. Her paintings and sculptures and most recently monotypes, are rich with personal spiritual symbolism. She is working on a book about her monotypes that will expand on the meanings of their symbols.
Pauline Siple, another artist friend from my Torpedo Factory days, has recently added to her repertoire of evocative paintings to add soft sculptures. These playful figures and paintings speak to themes that interest her and reflect stories of her life.
Polly Sonic/Linda Wingerter, I've known since my New Haven days. Her puppetry, (one of many creative talents, including children's book illustration) continue to amaze me. She is infinitely inventive and creative-take a look.
Living a Life Attuned....
The end of the year is a time of reflection and so are the years of mid to late life (for some.) In preparing for an upcoming course, entitled Maiden, Mother Crone, Death, I added the word Death, because it seemed to fit with the others, but I had no idea what I was going to say about death. However, in the months, and honestly years (two) that I have been mulling about ideas for this course, I have also been given the opportunity to reflect more on death and what it means. Mostly what I am coming to is the sense of a reclaiming of death as a part of life, and a release of the fears that make it so easy to push any thoughts of death off to the side. Several years ago, a close friend of mine who is very spiritually minded and who has never had this distance from thoughts of death (she had meditated often on her own death in a corpse meditation) recommended an app called “We Croak.” This app reminds us that we are going to die someday, with five times a day messages-not morbid and often not specifically about death itself, but more about life, the idea of how precious life is. For instance, I just got this message on the app:
Even when the plum has wilted and the winter has reached its deepest cold, do not let your body be numb or your mind absent. Dōgen Zenji.
Our Culture’s Negative View of Death as the “Grim Reaper”
When you think about death, do those scary archetypes in our culture come to mind? If you ever watched a horror movie, or even if you have paid any attention to popular culture, you would have come across the archetype of death as the “Grim Reaper.” There is an older, Celtic, version of this scary character, occurring also in other cultures, a horrifying-looking monster with a black cape and carrying a scythe, and called “Ankou.” “Ankou,” the lord of death, ferries people who have died to their life beyond. He has sometimes a cart and his eyes are holes filled with fire. He is terrifying and yet he serves primarily as a guide and messenger, not someone who is here to punish you for your sins in life. A general word for these two representatives of death is psychopomp.
What is a psychopomp?
The definition of psychopomp in Wikipedia is, “creatures, spirits, angels or deities in many religions, whose responsibility is to guide newly deceased souls to the afterlife. Their role is not to judge the deceased, but to guide them.” This definition goes on to describe a list of male deities from various cultures and religions whose roles may be seen as psychopomps. These include: Egyptian Anubis, Hindu Yama, Greek ferryman Charon, and the god Hermes, Roman God, Mercury. In Christianity, Saint Peter, Archangel Michael and Jesus can be seen as psychopomps.
Psychopomps aren't only Men...
The only feminine versions given were the Norse Valkyries and the Slavic Goddess, Morana, who is said to correspond to the Greek Goddess Hecate. Mention is made of the Grim Reaper as a modern-day psychopomp, with again a negative and frightening association, corresponding with our culture’s fear of death, instead of reverence.
Divine feminine Psychopomps
What if the psychopomp, instead of being a terrifying dark monster holding a scythe were someone who holds our hand, what if she were a guide? Maybe she is one of the lesser-known feminine psychopomps. First of all, there is Hecate, who I discussed in another blog post and who is known for guiding women at crucial life crossroads, certainly death is one of these. She also guided in the Roman mythology, Demeter to find her daughter, Persephone in the underworld. Mary, from the Catholic church (but truly represented in many more world religions, especially in her guise as the Black Madonna-more about that in a later post) has a guise as the Queen of the Underworld. In this role, she is deeply connected to the earth, to the soil, to the cycles of life. Rather than a punishing and terrifying monster, the feminine divine psychopomp is a companion and guide in our journey towards just one stage in the many stages of the cycles of life. And this isn’t to say that some of the male psychopomps weren’t also guides. It is more about the feminine principle of connectedness that underlies how we think about the more welcoming guides.
Living a Life Attuned to All Our Dimensions
Another possible psychopomp is the Egyptian Ishtar/Ianna who descends to the underworld to reunite with her lover, Dumuzi. An interesting dimension to her story is that she has to shed a layer at each stage of the journey to the underworld. The layers that she removes are, in order, crown, earrings, breast decorations, girdle, skirt, and not sure of the last one. These outer adornments correspond to various chakras from the crown chakra, on down the body to the sacral chakra. In this way, her journey represents the journey to the underworld as a metaphor for a deepening of spiritual awareness. No matter what you believe about what happens after you die, it is this vision of death as yet another dimension of our spiritual development that again connects death to the full spectrum of existence.
Delving into Our Inner Dimensions
In the realm of psychology, Jung describes the psychopomp as the mediator between conscious and unconscious. The connection here is between the formlessness of death and the formlessness of the inner life of dreams and the imagination. Just as we need a guide to assist us in our final journey, we also need a guide to assist us in navigating the threshold between our imagination and our waking lives. In living fully, we are healthiest when we have a balance of the two. Jung saw our psyche as divided into a consciousness above the line and the unconscious below, and in that unconscious were all kinds of collective archetypes, symbolic representations of various spiritual and emotional aspects of who we are collectively as human beings. His definition of healthy aging had to do with an integration, a coming together of all those disparate parts. And in order to do that, we need a guide to help us navigate between these worlds. We can find this inner guide in dreams, in the creative process (writing, art, poetry) and in living creatively and fully.
How does this matter in our daily lives?
Questions that come up when we reflect on these ideas are many. How do we mediate our own unconscious worlds, our own psyches? What happens when we embrace the feminine archetypes for psychopomps, rather than the often ferocious or warlike male figures? I've been hearing more often lately about people who are living a "normal" life but who suddenly experience a spiritual awakening. What's this about? Does this say something about a sea change in the way people are navigating their lives? It feels like the veil that used to separate our "average" day-to-day life from what's bubbling underneath is getting thinner. Things are changing fast and in a way that isn't a moment too soon. Our crazy world needs us to be connected to all of what is available to us, to our inner lives, to our spiritual lives, to nature and to our ancestors, in order to meet the challenges that are facing us today. It behooves us to tune into and welcome a more integrated view of the full spectrum of human existence, one which integrates the whole spectrum of life and death and rebirth and one that also welcomes our awakening spirituality. No matter where you are in terms of your beliefs about these things, I hope that this article piqued your imagination for further exploration.
Books to read:
Here are a few books to explore some of these ideas further…
The Heroine with 1,001 Faces, Maria Tatar
Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna, China Galland
The Crone: Woman of Age, Wisdom and Power by Barbara G. Walker
Cassandra Speaks: When Women are the Storytellers the Human Story Changes by Elizabeth Lesser
And I’m really looking forward to this one coming out soon: Hagitude: Reimagining the Second Half of Life, Sharon Blackie
I've been making dolls for about ten years now. I believe that dolls serve as representations and reminders of the best part of ourselves. I am excited to share with you here my learnings about new methods and techniques for doll making and healing. So glad you are here!