“Framing Savage Defiance in Her Lips”: Why the Goddess Tiamat Matters Now More Than Ever

It’s been an exciting week for me as a Fellowship of Isis (FOI) priestess, one filled with personal publishing triumphs–I’ve released the Spring issue of IsisSeshat magazine, the official publication of the worldwide FOI available to the Pagan public, adhering to the Earth Day launch I scheduled for myself (email me if you’d like to buy the hard copy or PDF of it; see my Gravatar profile for my email address) and official interfaith representation at the civic level. On Tuesday the 21st, I attended a faith-based women’s leaders “Salon for Solutions” hosted by the Chicago Foundation for Women (CFW), a prominent nonprofit organization whose mission is to improve the lives of Chicago’s women and girls through a tripartite platform of freedom from domestic violence, enhancing access to affordable healthcare, and fostering economic security.

CFW celebrates its 30th anniversary this September with a Symposium featuring Jane Fonda as its keynote speaker, and at that time CFW will launch a Civic Plan to Mayor Emanuel’s administration outlining its call to action for elevating Chicago’s women and girls. As part of formulating its Civic Plan, CFW reached out to several female faith-based leaders and social activists representing a diverse array of religious traditions and groups in this city. This past Tuesday, CFW hosted an afternoon “Salon for Solutions” at their downtown Chicago office; I’m happy to report that the Chicago chapter of the Fellowship of Isis was one of the groups invited, and my friend and current leader of FOI Chicago’s Lyceum of Alexandria, Demetria Nanos, and I attended. We were joined by my friend Rev. Angie Buchanan, the Director of Earth Traditions, as the “Pagan contingent” of the Salon for Solutions.

Also in attendance were Ms. Itedal Shalabi, the Executive Director of the Arab-American Family Services League, who discussed her campaign to raise awareness of domestic violence in Chicago’s Muslim community; the Rev. Nichelle Guidry-Jones, Associate Pastor to Young Adults at Trinity United Church of Christ; Wendy Witt, Associate Pastor at First United Methodist Church, who fought hard to get political leaders in Springfield to implement Marriage Equality; Ms. Lola Wright, the Executive Director of Bodhi Spiritual Center, a spiritual (not religious) organization whose mission is to “awaken individuals to live their inherent power and purpose”; and two social services case managers from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago (who asked me not to name them).

A diverse chorus of voices, indeed! And folks, it was mighty sensible–and prescient–of the two CFW Salon organizers and discussion leaders to announce at the outset that, even though we were all united in wanting to improve the lives of women and girls–and by extension, all people in all of our communities–in the city at large as well as foster the spiritual development of the women in our respective groups, mosques, temples, and congregations, by no means do we have to agree with each other. Respectful disagreement was anticipated and of course it happened, pretty much as soon as I opened my mouth to introduce myself as a Pagan provocateur. I said the reason why I welcomed the chance to add my perspectives to the data CFW was gathering in preparation of launching its Civic Plan was because it’s my holy mission in this lifetime to address the collective soul sickness wrought by the twin moral bankruptcies of scientific materialism, which, since the era of Descartes, has taught us to view Nature as an inert commodity (or series of commodities) worth exploiting, and Abrahamic religious dogmatism, which has bequeathed us in the Western world with a legacy of rampant misogyny and phallocentric transcendentalism in the quest to eradicate the memory of the Divine Feminine from mass consciousness, thereby denigrating all life on the planet in the process–to effect, in other words, nothing short of spiritual matricide.

I paraphrased my favorite quote from the late author Merlin Stone, whose book When God Was a Woman largely informed my coming to ecofeminist consciousness as a late adolescent: “Take away women’s rites, and you invariably take away women’s rights,” I all but hissed at the eyes fixated on me from around the large conference table.

I felt my blood boil.

I felt my bitten-down-to-the-nerves fingernails transform into sharp dragon claws.

I felt Tiamat standing behind me, Her hot breath streaming from Her strange snout, curling the hairs on the nape of my neck because I could fully anticipate the keening that was to come, with wings outspread and claws fiercely waving. Tiamat, Mother of Monsters. Tiamat the Enraged. Tiamat, Who, in the Enuma Elish, one of the Creation Stories from ancient Mesopotamia, emitted great cries while “framing savage defiance in Her lips” (Tablet IV, line 72) because She objected to having first Her husband, Apsu, and then Her children, slaughtered by the hosts of the Sky-God Anu.

“Savage defiance” forms my ethos as a priestess. “Savage defiance” is what must be donned as armor in the battle against the myriad overwhelming ecological and social injustices of our time.

“…Tiamat, a woman, it is that flies at you with weapons!” (Enuma Elish, Tablet II, line 111)

It’s actually appropriate to be reflecting on Tiamat at this time of year. According to scholar Thorkild Jacobsen in his Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion, the Enuma Elish was recited every April, on Day 4 of the 11-day Babylonian New Year festival (166). I didn’t know that when my friend Szmeralda, a fellow FOI priestess, and I decided, two Aprils ago, to host a women’s-only dark moon ritual in honor of the Goddess Tiamat as part of our 13-moon “Dark Moon, Dark Goddess” ritual series for women. (I would like to point out that by “women” we meant anyone who considered hirself a woman-identified person; biology was certainly not a criterion for admittance to those rituals.) Tiamat was who I nominated for the month of April. I wanted to lead women on a guided Underworld journey to Tiamat and to reclaiming sacred serpenthood in the bowels of the earth as well as in deep space, which is where the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon I used to watch as a kid in the 1980s presented Her as dwelling.

I wanted the ritual participants to merge their woundedness with Tiamat’s, to feel safe enough in our shared womb-tomb space to name all the ways that patriarchy tried to dismember their psyches through traumatic life events–narratives of sexual assault, frustrations with the criminal “justice”/legal system over issues of domestic violence and child custody/support, and body and lifestyle/identity shaming poured forth like Tiamat’s howls of righteous indignation at Anu, Anshar, and Marduk. Once named, those stories lost some of their power. The group catharsis was amazingly beautiful to behold, and it was one of the most spiritually humbling experiences of my life.

Emerging from the Underworld, we set about in silence for a period of time to process through writing and art what we’d experienced in our journeys to the caves filled with the bitter salt waters or to the inky and star-studded recesses of space. How did the Great Dragon appear? What were Her messages? Hold fast to them. Re-member them, meaning refashion them for the purpose of reintegrating them into your psyche.

I also had questions for contemplation for the ritual participants to answer in their journal entries if they so desired:

  • The Enuma Elish has elements that may be familiar to readers coming from a Judeo-Christian background (cf. the Book of Genesis, Chapter 1). Other elements may be dissonant to one’s cultural upbringing. What was your reaction after you read or listened to the story? Did anything surprise you about the deities involved, including Tiamat?
  • What does Tiamat’s association with salt water/the deep ocean mean to you? Does the concept of “primordial nature” have a place in your spiritual worldview? Why or why not?
  • How comfortable are you with chaotic periods in your life? How do you cope with them?
  • Are you ophidiophobic–do you fear snakes? What about other reptiles?
  • Do you come from a cultural or spiritual background whose teachings espouse any views of serpents or dragons? If so, are they positive or negative views? What are your thoughts on the recurring Western archetype of Solar Hero Slays Earth Serpent?
  • Do you think a “mythical” animal like a dragon (or a griffin, unicorn, sphinx, etc.) has any place in a contemporary spiritual practice (e.g., shamanic work)? Why or why not?

Our quiet period over, we rose and danced ancient Greek-style circle dances to one of my favorite CDs of Middle Eastern drum rhythms, Layne Redmond’s Invoking the Muse. We laughed. We cheered each other’s sexiness with every hip sway, with every shimmy of bountiful breasts. We saw and honored Tiamat in each other. Tiamat the Courageous. Tiamat, Goddess of Sovereignty–the Keeper of the Tablets of Destiny, on which the decrees of the Gods are written and which symbolize “supreme power over the universe” (Jacobsen 174). Tiamat the Beautiful. Tiamat, Singer of Spells. Tiamat, Holy Mother. Protectress. She of Righteous Rage.

In honor of “Mother Hubur, She Who Fashions All Things” (Enuma Elish, Tablet III, line 81), we snake-danced our way to an art table laden with buckets of modeling clay and jars of herbs: bay leaves and whole cloves. We fashioned little clay Tiamat figurines, gave Her bay leaves for wings and cloves for Her protruding tongue (or fire). We anointed Her with essential oils that were stationed on the communal altar (you know Dragon’s Blood Oil would figure prominently, and it did). We named Her. We clutched Her to our heart chakras. We kissed Her. The cycle of Mother and Daughter renewed by inversion: we were the Mothers, Mother Hubur, fashioning Tiamat Daughters, Sacred Mirrors of our Selves.

I still have my clay statue–She’s kept in my car, a zippy red three-door hatchback which is named after another great dragon: Fafnir. When I’m stuck in traffic or merrily en route someplace, singing at the top of my lungs, I often pick up Tiamat from Her interior console/dragon’s lair and kiss Her forehead. It’s a good thing.
Dragon Tales

I told my fellow interfaith panelists at CFW’s Salon for Solutions about this particular Tiamat ritual I co-hosted, and the boon it was for the women in the Pagan community who attended (as well as for Szmeralda and myself, naturally). I explained why, as far as CFW’s threefold mission is concerned, ensuring freedom from violence has to be the necessary first step in promoting the welfare of Chicago’s women and girls. A woman won’t be going on job interviews if she’s sporting a black eye or burn marks on her arms from her abusive partner. I know what I’m talking about: I’m a survivor of a physically abusive relationship, one that nearly crushed my spirit in the horrific near-two-year-span that I endured it. And what got me out of it? Not Chicago’s Finest. First and foremost, my spiritual community–my FOI Chicago family (if friends are one’s family of choice that’s even more the case when it comes to the tight-knit spiritual groups you choose to become a part of). Then came the social safety nets–restraining orders, court appearances in City Hall, battered women’s shelters and rounds of therapy sessions with domestic violence counselors.

Of course, Tiamat was there too. She has been with me ever since 1989, the summer before I turned 16, when I swam in Lake Ohrid in the Republic of Macedonia (then still part of the nation of Yugoslavia, where my parents hail from) and I believed during one instance of frozen terror in the local legends of the town of Ohrid claiming that an immense, ancient dragon dwells in the lake’s obsidian waves. You see, I’d initially swum out a quarter-mile into the lake to challenge this widely accepted folktale. When I stopped, I noticed the water was so black I couldn’t see my pasty white legs kicking under its surface anymore. And the temperature grew horribly cold in an instant. The dragon, I knew without a shadow of a doubt, absolutely was underneath me, waiting to feast upon my virginal flesh. I had such a severe panic attack I almost drowned. My horrified mother stood on shore, far away, waving and screaming. German tourists plunged into the water to retrieve me. It was, as they say, an unforgettable vacation.

Tiamat cylinder seal

Fast forward to 2002: I was walking and taking photographs in Custer State National Park in South Dakota. A few friends and I had taken a road trip in early September to celebrate my 29th birthday there. It was a glorious, Otherworldly day full of fog hugging the lakes ringed by oddly shaped, massive rock formations. We meandered between the rocks, narrowly carved out trails. I followed a path by myself for I don’t know how long, snapping pictures and talking to myself/singing to the birds I saw. And then it happened: a man leapt from one of the rocks ahead of me and blocked my path. He called me a whore and said he would teach me a lesson. I immediately turned around and started to run. He ran after me and tackled me before I could round the narrow passageway between the stones. I screamed and then he clamped his filthy hands on me. He was an older white man, silver-haired with crazed, blue-gray eyes. Dressed all in denim.

Terror. Shock. Rage.

And it was Tiamat Who answered.

Still clutching my hefty Canon camera, I struck him on the forehead while his hands were on my mouth. It knocked him to the side. I scrambled to my feet and ran, ran, ran, reserving my screaming until I caught sight of my friends at last. “Fire! Fire!” I yelled, and when they ran to my side and saw my tear-streaked, snotty face, they divided themselves: two ran down the path that I’d just come from, hoping to encounter my attacker. The other two swiftly led me back to where we’d parked our car; the cell phone reception was better there and my friend Ann pulled out her cell phone to call 911, while my other friend dialed the park ranger’s office. I filed reports with the park ranger and with Custer police; I was treated by EMTs. The assailant was never caught.

This traumatic episode from years ago has replayed itself in a recent dream, one in which I know Tiamat’s energies were present: A sinister man looking the way the actor Howard Hesseman did in the TV show WKRP in Cincinnati locked me and my mother in a decrepit bedroom with the intent to rape us both. My mother shrieked as the man cornered us in the narrow space between a wall and the bed. I instinctively flung my mother behind me, and as we stood single-file with the man leering at us, moving steadily closer as he unzipped his pants, I felt my body instantly transform: I started convulsing and growing taller, expanding my being. I looked at my arms, and they had become red, scaly appendages tipped with sharp claws, larger than a lion’s. I was nearing 8 feet tall, about to press up on the ceiling, when I eyed the man with holy rage and instantly incinerated him with my fiery breath. As he screamed during the immolation process, I swooped down on him with my claws and swiftly decapitated his charring body.

And then I woke up.

Whatever sort of malevolence this male figure represented–an astral entity, a subconscious reprocessing of the near-assault in South Dakota, who knows–I feel blessed at having known, at a soul level, how to destroy it with what I can only describe as the skin-walking medicine of Tiamat the Mighty, for “She has added matchless weapons, has born monster-serpents / Sharp of tooth, unsparing of fang” (Enuma Elish, Table III, lines 82-83).

I will forever be in Her debt. I will sing Her praises far and wide as long as I live. I will love Her fiercely and frame savage defiance from my lips with pride.

Shadowy Sisterhood, always.

Sorry, Marduk, but Tiamat lives.

It is so!

Works Cited

The Enuma Elish–The Babylonian Creation Myth. Available at: http://www.cresourcei.org/enumaelish.html. Accessed April 24, 2015.

Jacobsen, Thorkild. The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion. New Haven,
Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1976.

Highly Recommended Reading

Chalquist, Craig and Elliott, Rebecca. Storied Lives: Discovering and Deepening Your Personal Myth.
Walnut Creek, California: World Soul Books, 2009.

Patton, Kimberley C. The Sea Can Wash Away All Evils: Modern Marine Pollution and the Ancient
Cathartic Ocean. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

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