Thursday, September 9, 2010

Exsisto Me Minerva!

For most of my life, a large Audubon Society-style print of a great horned owl has hung at the head of my bed. In fact it guards the bed in Mom’s guestroom today. The piece is massive, the frame extending a good foot and a half beyond the edges of the print itself, which is not exactly small, either. The entire thing literally takes up most of a wall. I have no idea where it came from, or why it wound up on my wall. No doubt it struck my fancy as a kid, but if so, this occurred in the time of my life before memory. The owl has always been there, alert, watching, guarding me as I slept and greeting me as I woke.


A few years ago it became necessary for me to reacquaint myself with God. Now, don’t go scurrying off into the hills just yet, Readers Mine, I haven’t gone and got Religion, just a relationship with a higher power, if you will. This was not a process of discovery, but rather one of restoration. God and I had known one another before, but I’d done my best to walk away from the relationship over the years. Early on my personal theology had been heavily influenced by the writings of Joseph Campbell, particularly the idea of “masks of the Divine.” Simply put, there is one divine source (call it what you will), but we humans, with our little pea-brains, simply cannot comprehend Its totality. By definition, God is well beyond any human’s ability to understand It. Therefore, we approach God -- and It us – indirectly and incompletely through symbolism of one kind or another, with God revealing Itself to man in various ways that are accessible given the time, place, and culture.

Think of it as a Tiffany shade surrounding a white light bulb. Viewed from different angles and distances, the light has various colors, but the source of all of the colored light is the same, white bulb. Yahweh, Allah, Jesus, Odin, Shiva, Brahma, Zeus, Ahura Mazda, etc, are all attempts at understanding between humans and the Divine. For one reason or another, at one time or another, they all spoke to us, were recognized as containing some truth, or some part of the Truth (the Tao which can be perceived, after all, is not the true Tao). They are symbols of something larger, facets of Tiffany glass tinting the light.

That’s how I see it, anyway. If you see things differently, good on you. I’ve got no quarrel with you, Atticus.

So, a few years ago, I found myself well away from the Road and in the woods with Dante. We’ll call it a bit of rough going and leave it at that for now. I was beaten and broken, and I would have to be bloody and terrified before I realized that I wasn’t doing so well with this life stuff all by my lonesome, and that maybe it was time to get some help, both human and divine. Being chock full of knee-jerk prejudice which I had carefully tended as a kind of bullshit world-weary-and-wise-cynicism, the traditional religio-spiritual paths of my area of the U.S. weren’t going to work as viable lines of communication between God and me. I wasn’t going to hear anything that used that symbology. Something different was needed.

What came was an owl. An ancient owl stamped into the reverse side of a late 5th/early 4th century BC Athenian tetradrachma. It’s a symbol I first ran across in a novel by Neal Stephenson called Cryptonomicon, and which I later found out is also used as the signet for the curator of the Smithsonian Museum. In any event, it appealed to me strongly. The owl is traditionally a symbol of wisdom, and I really needed some of that. So I ordered a replica of the coin and put it on a chain around my neck where it dangles to this day.

Now there are two sides to a coin, and the obverse of this one had a profile of the goddess Athena, patroness and namesake of Athens, of course, but also, the entity to whom the owl of wisdom belonged. The owl is one of Her symbols. Another is the olive branch, representing peace and prosperity. Of course She is usually depicted with an Attic helm, and often with a spear held confidently, symbolizing her role as Goddess of War. Not the bloodlusting savagery of Ares, though, but the arts of tactics and strategy, Odysseus rather than Achilles. Here was strength combined with wisdom. More of what I desperately needed. And let us not forget the Aegis, at times depicted as a gorgon-faced shield or cuirass, and providing impenetrable protection. Oh that sounded good! Finally, Athena is also the goddess of crafts, for which you should think “technology”. Considering that my life had been saved by a combination of medical knowledge, skill, and high-tech, and that I believe in technology’s potential for our little species, that was perfect.

One could do worse than to call out to God and have It appear as a Warrior Goddess.

So Athena (Minerva in the Etruscan-Roman traditions), became my Patron, and my primary symbolic route to a relationship with God. Over time, my ability to accept and hear the wisdom in other symbologies has slowly grown, and hopefully will continue to do so, but Athena remains my guide and comfort. Imagine my surprised joy then when I walked onto the campus of the University I began attending this fall and in wandering about came across a quiet little place with a swing-set and trees and benches surrounding a granite plinth atop which rises a two meter bronze statue of Minerva in the classical style, Attic helmet tipped back atop Her head, reaching out as if to bestow wisdom on any who are willing to have it. I stopped dead, smiled and raised my right hand to my lips. Kissed it.

That is how one salutes the Goddess, after all. And She deserves such salutes for all of those years that Her owl spent on silent guard over an unwitting, unwilling soul.