Encounters with the Dark Goddess: Artistic and Ritual Reimagining of Sylvia Plath’s Poetry

April is National Poetry Month. As a former college English instructor, a published poet, and an ordained Priestess, I honor the legacies of artists whose works have transcended the boundaries of their artistic mediums, and the vagaries of the times in which they lived, rippling out with profound spiritual force to affect so many people today. American poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) is such an artist who has had an incalculable effect upon my developing spiritual consciousness from my adolescence onwards; I go so far as to hail her in the ranks of my Mighty Dead, my spiritual forebears in Witchcraft.

Three years ago, I began to meditate on the idea of Plath’s poetry as a vehicle for encountering Dark Goddess energies and the need to harness those energies in a public Pagan ritual format. I knew I wanted to weave together the strands of my academic analysis of her work (I taught American poetry at the undergraduate level for 3 years as an adjunct English professor on Oahu), my Priestessing skills in generating energy and directing it towards a specific purpose to benefit a group of participants, and my own personal religious devotion to specific Dark Goddesses (e.g., Hekate, Nephthys, Hel). Art served as the medium of inspiration, as it often does: not just Plath’s poetry, but my artistic interpretations through acrylic paintings of some of Plath’s most famous works.

The following chronicles my process and its eventual public ritual outcome: an evening of tribute to Plath’s genius through the ritual encountering of Dark Goddess energy, recitals and discussions of Plath’s poetry, and a shamanic journey facilitated by the use of my 2017 painting An Homage to Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’ as a portal into the Otherworld. My goal was to have ritual participants surrender to the “blackness and silence” of the Dark Goddess, as described in Plath’s inimitable voice, and experience the transformative gifts of the Shadow.

“Blackness and Silence”: Plath and the Dark Goddess

Published posthumously in 1965, Ariel, a volume of poetry by Plath, contains some of her most renowned and critically acclaimed works. Poems such as “The Moon and the Yew Tree,”Lady Lazarus,” and “Totem” furthermore serve as direct encounters with Dark Goddess energy, plunging the reader into a soulscape that seethes with destructive and creative force. Ultimately, Plath’s powerful words and evocative images, which adeptly name and process existential crisis, can be used as tools for personal healing.

“Why are so many of us unwilling or unable to acknowledge the power of the darkness?” — Denise Dumars & Lori Nyx, The Dark Archetype: Exploring the Shadow Side of the Divine (New Page Books, 2003, p.7).

I’m not a licensed therapist or mental health professional in any capacity. I am a Priestess who is committed to helping people learn from and grow beyond their core woundedness. For me, a lived spirituality is one that entails accepting All That Is, including pain and darkness; challenging life circumstances, even traumas, are not experiences we should try to “overcome”; rather, they are meant to be incorporated into our evolving awareness of our most sacred Selves and our relationship to the Cosmos.

If I’m a healer, I’m definitely a wounded one. Three years ago, I had a powerful moment of catharsis regarding one of my own personal traumas: and it was my artistic visioning of one of Plath’s poems that served as the vehicle of healing.

Homage to Sylvia Plaths The Moon and the Yew Tree

My 2017 acrylic and cement painting Homage to Plath’s ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree.’ This painting has subsequently sold during an exhibition held at Chicago’s Life Force Arts Center.

This painting arose as one of my class projects in an acrylics painting class I took at a nearby community center in the Spring of 2017. My teacher was instructing us in using new techniques with a palette knife in lieu of a brush for painting; she also taught us how to mix cement into our paints. I had initially started with the intent of creating an abstract piece, more an exercise in blending different colors and textures with my palette knife than anything else, but it wasn’t long after I’d begun working that I started to “space out” and I entered into a light-to-medium trance state. In that Void-like conscious state, the verses from Plath’s 1961 poem “The Moon and the Yew Tree” began to ring loudly in my head, starting with the first verse:

“This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.”

I used to teach this poem as well as other works by Plath and Anne Sexton when I taught Literature courses at the undergraduate level. The somber tone and the speaker’s existential crisis, which gets resolved at the end of the poem through accepting cosmic energies that I define as “Dark Goddess” ones, mirrored my own “Dark Night of the Soul” experience that I was undergoing at the time of taking that weekly painting class. Just as the speaker of Plath’s poem empties herself out emotionally before a “bald and wild” moon and a yew tree known for its “blackness and silence,” I found myself achieving an unexpected level of catharsis in painting this piece. It has become yet another milestone marker in my personal journey of the Dark Night of the Soul.

The night of the Sylvia Plath public ritual, I decided to bring this painting and have it propped up as a focal point on the altar. I was determined to lead a group shamanic journey to the Otherworld, and the soulscape of my painting would serve as the portal into Plath’s Dark Goddess energetic consciousness. I also had a framed photo of Ms. Plath to place on the altar.

I wasn’t wholly surprised that people of all races who exclusively identified as women showed up as my ritual participants: there were zero men in attendance. Several knew me from the Chicago Pagan community and were excited to participate in something that combined both their literary and their spiritual sensibilities. Other attendees were total strangers, not necessarily Pagans but definitely in sympathy with Paganism; several were students from the University of Chicago who had heard about the event through my social media advertisements. There were English Majors, Sociology Majors—fans of Sylvia Plath who were new to the intersection of feminism and spirituality. I smiled and greeted each person individually at the venue’s entrance and was glad to see there would be an abundance of actual food (as opposed to bags of potato chips and store-bought cookies!) for the post-ritual potluck feast! A rarity!

 

Getting into a Dark Goddess Head- and Heart-Space

After we’d made our introductions around the room but before we’d Cast the Circle (I had four individuals bravely volunteer to invoke Sylvia Plath at the East, South, West, and North points of the Circle using Elementally corresponding phrases from Plath’s journal writings!), I wanted to help everyone get on the same proverbial page regarding what Dark Goddess energy is and the why behind this gathering. This was the pre-ritual “head space” I wanted everyone to tap into. For the women coming from a Pagan, especially a Polytheistic devotional, background, I posed the questions: Does anyone here already have an established relationship with a so-called Dark Deity? How did that relationship begin: Did you choose that Holy Power or did It choose you? (For the non-Pagans, I explained, these Deities are deemed “Dark” due to demonization by the patriarchy. They understood that concept immediately.)

And even more thought-provokingly, I posed these questions:

How has staving off criticism from “mainstream” religions made Paganism afraid of its own shadows? (Think of the automatic response disavowals from having any hint of “Satanism,” or the controversial subjects of hexing/cursing, etc.) Does anyone have experience encountering “scaredy-cat” Pagans? 

And then, I wanted to glean insights into this question:

Has anyone ever invoked their Dark Deity in a group ritual context only to be rudely informed by the hosts that the Deity in question was unwelcome? (This has happened to me on several occasions, especially concerning the Gods Set and Loki, respectively, depending on the groups in question who had invited me to their rituals.)

“When we are able to contact the genuine nature of the Dark Goddess within us, we feel as if we are in our power. We are strong, assertive, psychic, prophetic, creative, sexual, unrestrained, and free.” — Demetra George, Mysteries of the Dark Moon (HarperCollins, 1992, p.227).

My Brief Lecture on the Dark Goddess Incarnate: Sylvia Plath

I had a veritable arsenal of teaching materials on Sylvia Plath but I limited my lecture notes to the bare essentials of her biography. I would point anyone in the direction of this excellent Voices & Visions PBS series episode on the life and literary legacy of Plath as well.

Sylvia Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on October 27, 1932. She committed suicide in her London flat on February 11, 1963. She was only 30 years old.

Her mother, Aurelia Schober, was a Master’s student at Boston University when she met Plath’s father, a German-born professor named Otto Plath, who taught German and Biology with a focus on Apiology, the study of bees.

Otto Plath died from diabetes complications when Sylvia was 8 years old. This was the crucial event of her childhood and Sylvia first attempted suicide at the age of 10. Aurelia encouraged Sylvia’s literary ambitions as a means of channeling her grief over her father’s death.

Sylvia was what we would clinically term today a “highly functioning depressed person,” as she was an ambitious scholar and writer. Her first poetry was published on a national level just after she graduated from high school. She was a precocious and gifted writer, filled with self-deprecating humor.

She went to Smith College and despite a deep bout of depression in 1953, when she attempted suicide again, she excelled in her studies and graduated Summa cum laude in 1955. She obtained a Fulbright Scholarship the following year and moved to Cambridge, England. In the early part of 1956, she met the English poet Ted Hughes, and they married on June 16 of that year.

Plath and Hughes briefly moved back to Massachusetts in 1957 and they both taught English at the college level. Their relationship was starting to show strains, however, over Ted’s flirtatious behavior with other women and from Sylvia’s resentment that his poetry was earning more critical acclaim than hers. Sylvia began attending regular poetry seminars taught by the poet Robert Lowell at Boston University.

In 1960, however, Plath started to attain critical fame with the publication of her first volume of poetry, The Colossus. It was published in England first and then in the U.S. two years later. She and Ted moved back to England in 1960 and Sylvia gave birth to heir first child, Frieda. In 1962 she gave birth to their son, Nicholas.

Ted Hughes began to have an affair with Assia Gutman Wevill, the wife of the poet David Wevill, to whom Ted and Sylvia were renting their London flat in Primrose Hill. Ted got Assia pregnant and left Sylvia to be with Assia in 1962, plunging Sylvia into the deepest depression that she would never recover from—but it was also the darkness of this depression that spawned her most fervent bout of creativity. She wrote the poems that would comprise her most famous compilation of poetry, Ariel—in fact, writing 2 to 3 poems a day!—and she published, under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas, a partially autobiographical novel called The Bell Jar, which effectively dramatizes the stereotypes of women’s roles in the 1950s, and the turmoil of a young woman (Plath) who is aware that her gifts and ambitions exceed the options available to her in life.

Plath

Sylvia Plath, aged 27.

On the afternoon of February 11, 1963, during one of the worst winters on record for the city of London, Sylvia Plath wrote a note for her downstairs neighbor, instructing him to call a doctor. Then she committed suicide using her gas oven, with her two young children sealed off from the fumes in a separate bedroom.

Although only Colossus was published during her lifetime, Sylvia Plath was a prolific poet, and in addition to Ariel, Ted Hughes published 3 other volumes of her work posthumously, including The Collected Poems, which was the recipient of the 1982 Pulitzer Prize. Sylvia Plath is the first author to have been posthumously awarded the Pulitzer.

 

Why I Believe Plath’s Work Aligns with Dark Goddess Energies

Plath’s work is often associated with the Confessional movement, compared to the work of Robert Lowell and fellow student Anne Sexton. In that style of writing, the focus on the Self creates the dynamic energy of the work—the American tradition of the heroic ego confronting the Sublime, but Plath revises this tradition by turning the hero into a heroine. This is specifically gendered experience of the realm of the Feminine, which transmutes the domestic and the ordinary into the hallucinatory, into the utterly strange—an imaginative transformation of experience into myth. We see this transformation over and over again. In her (in)famous poem, “Daddy,” Plath transforms her German father into an emblem for patriarchal authority, for example.

Her poetry in the last year or so of her life is galvanized by suffering, by a terrible constriction against which she unravels. It’s a dark vision of domestic life, and I can’t help but wonder whether or not postpartum depression played a role in darkening her vision of motherhood and societal expectations of what a “good” wife and mother ought to be.

The Ariel poems, fueled by anger towards her philandering husband and her long-dead father, are very powerful and larger than life: they read like an indictment of all patriarchy. These poems comprise her best-known work and give the Dark Goddess a roaring voice. Nature in these final poems is also imbued with Divine Dark Intelligence and its processes are as epic in scale as the female speaker’s. Plath responds to Nature with intensity and more than a little Witchiness. As I post the entirety of “The Moon and the Yew Tree” below, you’ll see what I mean. It really reads like something she channeled from the gaping maw of the Dark Mother!

 

The Ritual: Evoking Sylvia Plath

Upon the altar, besides my painting and the framed photo of Sylvia Plath, I placed these Elementally corresponding items: notebook and pen with incense in the East; candle in the South; chalice in the West; and small crystal in the North.

Each participant was given the opportunity to cleanse themselves spiritually with mugwort and sage incense; a small dish was passed around the group. To ground and center ourselves, we chanted: “Earth, Air, Fire, Sea: Elements ground and center me.”

Then the Quarters were called:

In the East, Sylvia Plath speaks: “IF I DIDN’T THINK, I’D BE MUCH HAPPIER.”

In the South, Sylvia Plath speaks: “THE WORST ENEMY TO CREATIVITY IS SELF-DOUBT.”

In the West, Sylvia Plath speaks: “I AM SO BUSY KEEPING MY HEAD ABOVE WATER THAT I SCARCELY KNOW WHO I AM, MUCH LESS WHO ANYBODY ELSE IS.”

In the North, Sylvia Plath speaks: “I TOOK A DEEP BREATH AND LISTENED TO THE OLD BRAG OF MY HEART: ‘I AM, I AM, IAM.'”

(Note: These quotes were all excerpted from the corpus of Sylvia Plath’s diaries, which have been published as one volume.)

All women then interlinked hands, breathing in to a count of four and exhaling to a count of four for roughly a minute.

Then the Evocation of the Shade of Sylvia Plath commenced; we recited, as a group, “The Moon and the Yew Tree”:

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility
Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
I simply cannot see where there is to get to.

The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
White as a knuckle and terribly upset.
It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.
Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky —-
Eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection
At the end, they soberly ring out their names.

The yew tree points up, it has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
How I would like to believe in tenderness —-
The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.

I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
Blue and mystical over the face of the stars
Inside the church, the saints will all be blue,
Floating on their delicate feet over the cold pews,
Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.
The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
And the message of the yew tree is blackness — blackness and silence

Next came the shamanic journeying portion of the ritual, wherein I instructed the women to sit or lie on the carpeted floor as they saw fit (pillows were provided). I grabbed my frame drum and announced that the women, having already accessed the portal of the Moon and the Yew Tree from reciting the poem and communing with my painting, were to see the Yew Tree from the poem as the Axis Mundi, the World Tree, from which they could make a journey into the Underworld or the Upper World. Would the spirit of Sylvia Plath manifest for them individually? I drummed ecstatically on my frame drum, steadily and from a place of a deep trance, for roughly half an hour.

When I gently began to drum the signal for the women to return up the roots of the Yew Tree and reenter the venue space where their bodies were laying on the carpet of the ritual room, I felt that I had let go of a pernicious spiritual attachment, one that I didn’t even know had embedded itself into my auric field. I let out a little yelp of relief.

Once the drumming had ceased, I turned the lights back on in the room and passed out blank notebooks and pens to everyone, asking them to write about what wisdom they were bringing back with them from the Otherworld and from their Dark Goddess encounter with Plath’s poetry, or even with her individual spirit/ghost (I strongly felt she was aware of what we were doing in her honor and had briefly made an appearance in the room during the shamanic journey portion of the ritual).

Then I passed the Talking Father from person to person, inviting each woman, only if she wanted to, to speak about any aspect of what the evening had meant to her. Everyone nodded in understanding with whatever was being shared in Sacred Space; the bond was palpably felt between all of us with each other and with Sylvia Plath. This was Sisterhood, indisputably so.

We then partook of Cakes and Ale, giving the major portion to the shade of Sylvia Plath herself (the homemade bread and white wine were deposited afterwards onto the roots of a tree outside the venue space). We fed each other, “May you never hunger.” We offered each other the libation: “May you never thirst.” We made pledges to work on self-care and further our own healing journeys.

Then we gave thanks to Sylvia, and the same volunteers who invoked Sylvia at the Four Quarters stepped up in reverse order to bid her Hail and Farewell:

(NORTH:) “Blessings of the Earth upon your bright Spirit, Sylvia! Your words endure for all time.”

(WEST:) “Blessings of the Waters upon your bright spirit, Sylvia! Creativity flows always in all ways.”

(SOUTH:) “Blessings of Fire upon your bright spirit, Sylvia! Courage and conviction expel self-doubt and ignite the sparks of new creative projects.”

(EAST:) “Blessings of Air upon your bright spirit, Sylvia! New thoughts and creative ways to convey them fuel a zest for life.”

I gave a final blessing upon the group and we declared the Circle to be Open, But Unbroken: Merry Meet, and Merry Part, and Merry Meet Again!

 

Afterword

I would be most happy to hear from other ritual facilitators who, in shared Sacred Space, have honored the human dead who’ve increased our cultural capital during their lifetimes. As I mentioned earlier, I hail Sylvia Plath in the ranks of my Mighty Dead, in addition to Gerald Gardner as the Father of Modern Wicca, Donna Cole Schultz as my first and best Gardnerian Wiccan High Priestess of my former coven (the Temple of the Sacred Stones here in Chicago), and the Right Reverends Lady Olivia Robertson, Deena Butta, and Loreon Vigné, my teachers and guiding Archpriestesses in the worldwide Fellowship of Isis, the organization into which I have been ordained as legal clergy.

Whom do you honor? How did they influence your path of spiritual evolution?

May these beloved and blessed dead be ever-hailed! Blessed Be!

 

Works Cited

Dumars, Denise and Lori Nyx. The Dark Archetype: Exploring the Shadow Side of the Divine. Newburyport, MA: New Page Books, 2003.

George, Demetra. Mysteries of the Dark Moon: The Healing Power of the Dark Goddess. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Plath, Sylvia. The Collected Poems. Foreword by Ted Hughes. New York: HarperCollins, 1981.

—–. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. Ed. Karen V. Kukil. New York: Anchor Books, 2000.

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Encounters with the Dark Goddess: Artistic and Ritual Reimagining of Sylvia Plath’s Poetry

    • Thank you so much, Lorna! I miss having the painting but I am glad it went to an appreciative buyer (I heard from the gallery owner that a poet had bought it). Blessings to you during this bizarre time of adaptation we’re all facing. ((hugs))

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