The House Made of Dawn

· Essays · ,

Reinhabiting the Sacred Feminine

by Carol Lee Flinders

Wherever the sacred feminine is honored, the central imagery is of birthing, but also of rebirthing. In cultures where individual achievement and aggrandizement are crucial to one’s experience of self, the very notion of death evokes immense anxiety, because mortality limits one’s opportunity to make a mark in life. Where identity is experienced in terms of connection and relationship, one might assume the idea of death would be just as terrifying insofar as it disconnects us from those we love. But, in fact, another dynamic comes often into play. The little boy’s smile is so like his father’s, and his eyes are those of his grandmother. He laughs like his mother’s sister, and so, probably, will his grandchildren. The continuities are so evident we can rest in them, feeling ourselves held securely in a web of intricate design. Life is not snuffed out when one individual dies; it gathers itself in and reconfigures from one instant to the next.

Photo by Valonia Hardy

Photo by Valonia Hardy

This kind of awareness, antithetical in so many ways to our own, is intrinsic to many traditional cultures, and it is certainly one of the reasons those cultures exert the powerful draw upon us that they do. It is nowhere more powerfully evident than in the feminine initiation rites that anthropologists working in a great many different traditions have been able to reconstruct or, in some cases, observe directly. I’ve described women’s efforts to reinhabit the sacred feminine as a form of scavenging—pulling together bits and pieces from various cultures and gluing them together into something usable. But in the female initiation rite we’re about to look at, we see the sort of find that archaeologists wait for all their lives: a whole and coherent representation of the Divine Mother, unbroken, unchipped, radiant with meaning. We discover, too, that of the four motifs around which I’ve structured my inquiry, enclosure is the one to watch….


Contained, Transformed, Emergent

A thirteen-year-old Navajo girl sits quietly in the semidarkness of her family hogan close to an older woman who is murmuring instructions to her. The girl wears a ceremonial sash and jewelry made of turquoise and white shell. Her hair is fragrant with yucca shampoo: heavy bangs cover her forehead, the rest is held back in a buckskin thong. Before her is a basket full of roasted corn and a set of ancient stone tools for grinding it. Her cheeks are flushed, because she has just returned from a vigorous run with her friends—a race she was foreordained to win, accompanied by special songs:

Black Jewel Girl, the breeze coming from her as she runs is beautiful,
Her black jewel moccasins, the breeze coming from her as she runs is beautiful…
Before, behind, it is blessed, the breeze coming from her as she runs is beautiful.

There is a moment in a young girl’s life when the child is slipping away and one can catch glimpses of the woman she will be, hovering behind her smile, prefigured in her gestures. It is a magical and indeed a liminal time, for sometimes you seem to see both the girl and the woman at once, and that very oscillation, along with the curious radiance that can settle over girls at that moment, suggests still another possibility: that it may be neither girl nor woman standing before you but rather the Girl of girls and the Woman of women. In cul- tures that consciously revere the feminine sacred, this fleeting intuitive awareness is honored and becomes the basis of initiatory rites. We might imagine that these are carried out primarily for the girl’s benefit, but in fact they are times when her entire community rejoices, for each time a girl becomes a woman, the Goddess is reborn into her family and community. She is regenerated, and because She is the giver and sustainer of life, so everyone else is regenerated along with her.

Mystery writer Tony Hillerman has performed a great service by familiarizing ordinary readers with the beauty and power of Native American religious practices. In The Listening Woman, Detective Joe Leaphorn’s key informant is an elderly woman who is assisting at a kinaalda ceremony, marking a Navajo girl’s initiation into womanhood. To hurry the old woman, or pressure her, is absolutely out of the question; Leaphorn will learn what he needs to know only if she is persuaded that he is not asking as an outsider. He can do this easily enough, because in fact he is not an outsider at all. He takes part in the kinaalda itself with evident delight, singing the ancient songs, whose words, “down through the generations had become so melded into the rhythm that they were hardly more than musical sounds.”


Ceremonies And Rituals Are like the genetic material of a particular culture: the medium in which its deepest values are preserved down through time. Central to women’s rites, particularly the rites that initiate a young girl into womanhood, is the theme of regeneration, of the creative and recreative forces of the natural world. Resiliency itself. In every instance with which I am familiar these ceremonies involve ritual enclosure, and in these contexts enclosure connotes, not imprisonment or limitation of any sort, but a symbolic gestation.

Citing the work of anthropologist Bruce Lincoln, Jungian psychotherapist Virginia Beane Rutter observes that in contrast to male initiation patterns, which reflect “a process of separation, liminality (transition), and reincorporation,” feminine rites tend to follow a threefold pattern of “enclosure, metamorphosis (or magnification), and emergence.” She interprets those three stages in psychobiological terms and observes that in fact they recur over and over again throughout a woman’s life:

Containment, transformation, and emergence form a ritual pattern of renew- al for women. The pattern has both an inner and outer place in women’s lives… Initially, as a girl child, she is self-contained. Her body is hers and closed to the world. Menarche “opens” her physically, emotionally, and psychologically to external influence or intrusion. With each menstrual cycle, she undergoes a bodily transformation. Each month brings periods of containment, changing, and emerging. Her sexual receptivity fluctuates with her changing moods. During pregnancy a woman finds herself in a deep state of inner-containment while creation and transformation take place in her womb. Emergence comes when the blood flows in childbirth and the baby is born. During lactation her milk flows, opening her physical boundary into the world, into relationship in a new way. Later in life, when her blood ceases, she returns to another state of self-containment. Transformed once again, she emerges into old age and an identity as a grandmother.


Ceremonies Like Kinaalda have proven a richly meaningful source in Rutter’s therapeutic work with women. “Depth-oriented psychotherapy,” she maintains, “is an experience of initiation—a rite of passage from one stage of consciousness to another. When a woman seeks a woman therapist, she explains, it is typically because “an initiatory threshold has been reached, or life has been dammed up at an old stage. A new developmental task requires attention to inner reality.” She compares such a moment to early adolescence when “longings press for realization from within” and notes that elements from rites like kinaalda have turned up regularly in the dreams of her own clients as they themselves moved toward greater wholeness. Rutter feels now that she has presided over their unfolding in much the same way that an older woman mentor does over the initiation of a young Navajo girl in kinaalda: “The therapeutic enclosure…provides the ritual container for development that our culture generally lacks…a quiet, closed, sacred space with the attention of a single woman focused completely on her. It is a place of self-attunement; it can be a place of self-realization.”

In kinaalda a young girl really becomes Changing Woman, the foremost Navajo deity, “the power of change and fecundity in all things.” What goes on during the ceremony between a young girl and her mentor forms the foundation for the girl’s entire life as a woman. Directly, but vicariously, too, with her own daughters and nieces, she will experience over and over that threefold pattern of containment, transformation, and emergence, and she will come to know its power—to know that continuous renewal is what it means to be Changing Woman. Every aspect of kinaalda works to reinforce this knowledge. Let’s look at the ceremony now a little more closely, noting as we do the importance attached implicitly not only to enclosure but also to silence, restraint of desires, and a very interesting variation on the theme of self-naughting.


Ritual Enclosure Is Signaled very simply by the hanging of a blanket across the door of the girl’s hogan, but the hogan is made holy for the purposes of the ritual by the singing of traditional songs:

Here at this house, it is a sacred place …
The house made of dawn is a sacred place …
Now it is the house of long life and everlasting beauty.

The girl herself chooses her Ideal Woman— someone who is strong and beautiful, a good cook, a mother, and a skillful weaver. In the first stage of the ceremony, Ideal Woman washes the girl’s hair with yucca root shampoo and brushes it with ceremonial grass. She washes the girl’s turquoise and white shell jewelry and dresses her, singing all the while. After the girl has been dressed and ornamented, she lies upon a pile of blankets lent by guests and family members (her very touch will bless them), and is massaged by Ideal Woman from toe to head. Because a girl is believed to be malleable during menarche, she can be reshaped through massage into Changing Woman. Because she is considered to be particularly vulnerable during this time, both physically and emotionally, she must stay away from evil places, and everyone around her is careful to model attitudes of kindness and generosity. At the same time, she knows herself to be growing in strength. Twice a day, followed by her girlfriends, she runs, a little farther each time, understanding that the farther she runs, the longer she is likely to live in health.

Over the course of her enclosure the initiate roasts and grinds corn—as much as thirty pounds—for an enormous corn cake. She grinds it with stone tools; the work is meant to strengthen her “soft bones.” Her father will help dig the earthen pit where it is to be baked; her grandfather may keep the fire going. Once the batter is in the heated pit, she sprinkles it with corn pollen. She herself will be blessed with sacred pollen before the all-night sing. She stays awake throughout the night listening attentively to the songs.

At dawn the girl’s hair and jewelry are washed one final time, and she leaves the hogan for a final run. When she gets back, she will cut the cake and serve it out, refraining from eating it herself. The cake is huge and round and deep gold in color. It looks like the sun—the very emblem of bounty and brightness. And she glows, too: this is her day. She has been recreated, and so have those who participated in her initiation. To look upon her is a blessing. The Mother has returned. This is what regeneration looks like—tastes like.

Photo by Karen Lee

Photo by Karen Lee


See How Differently Female experience is depicted here. The girl is silent, but only so that she can hear with her whole being timeless songs that portray her to herself as “the subject of her own epic.” Her sense of self is not assaulted; it enlarges, rather, as she feels herself becoming one with Changing Woman. She curbs her own hunger, but does so in the context of becoming one who can feed and heal others. In point of fact, she is acquiring power. And finally, she is enclosed, but only for a time, and with a female mentor of her own choice, and their enclosure serves only to intensify their communion.

Carol Lee Flinders is a writer, scholar and educator. She has taught at UC Berkeley, and is currently a Fellow of the Spiritual and Health Institute at Santa Clara University.

From At the Root of This Longing: Reconciling a Spiritual Hunger and a Feminist Thirst. Copyright © 1998 by Carol Lee Flinders. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

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