Tag Archives: Wixarika

Elemental Depths and ideas for how to dive into them

Explorations into our Relationship with Water

All photos by David Ashwanden

It’s all around us, flowing beneath our feet even if we do not see it and condensing far above our heads, weaving its way through our lives in our every daily task and cycling ceaselessly as part of our bodies, refreshing, revitalising, rehydrating.

Our ancestors praised this most basic of elements – the one we are grown within before we are born, and which comprises around 60% of our beings (1). Many cultures around the world still celebrate water and use it in an effective and regenerative way. Yet somehow a lot of current activities, both on a large and small scale, seem to be ignoring or misusing water, which results in a cutting-off from the flow and thus from an important part of ourselves.

How are we disconnecting from our relationship with water and how can we reconnect?

Why does it matter what stories we tell ourselves about water?

And what actions can we take to address the imbalance caused by those interfering with flow?

This article will attempt to answer some of these questions, with an in-depth look at the specific case of the Mekong River, though it is by no means a complete answer. Think of it more as a flowing stream to which you can add if you wish.

How we relate to water

Throughout history, and in many current resilient societies, water has been and continues to be revered. Our human cultures show countless variations on the personification of water as a deity, from Varuna, the Vedic god of water and the Celestial Ocean, who rides upon the Makara, a kind of magical crocodile (2), to the Aztec “jade-skirted” Chalchiuhtlicue, serpent-goddess of rain, purification floods and childbirth, to the Inuit Sedna, fish-tailed goddess of the ocean and the underworld (3), to the Chinese Dragon Kings of the Four Seas (4).

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A Naga guards the entrance to a temple next to the Mekong River in Vientiane, Laos. Photo by David Ashwanden.

Many societies throughout the world still celebrate and worship water and water deities, such as the Yoruba people of Nigeria, who celebrate Oshun, the goddess of sensuality, sweet waters and the moon, with an annual festival on the river which bears her name (5). Throughout South-East Asia there are various festivals dedicated to the Naga, which are serpent-formed water guardian spirits of Hindu origin (see for example 6). Many of these festivals have since been appropriated by the Buddhist religion yet the Naga still play an important part in the folklore of the region (see for example 7).

In Kerala, South India, the Naga are also remembered with the creation of “sarpakkavu” (8), sacred groves of trees dedicated to these spirits, while in the North of the country the goddess Ganga is remembered on a daily basis all along the river which bears her name, in particular in the holy city of Varanasi, where pilgrims come from all over the country to drink and bathe in the sacred waters, and into which the cremated bodies of the dead are also cast in order to be purified (see for example 9). In modern-day Mexico live the Wixarika people, known to Spanish-speakers as ‘Huicholes’, who follow one of the oldest unbroken pagan traditions in the world (see for example 10). Though they now live many thousands of miles away from their ancestral homelands they still make an annual pilgrimage to the deserts which produce the Hikuri cactus plants which form the centre of their mythology, on the way paying homage the serpent-goddess Nacawé (11) at a number of sacred springs in which they bathe (12).

From 'The Dao Oracle'.

From ‘The Dao Oracle’ by Ma Deva Padma.

When it comes to tracing the origins of my own ancestral myths it can be a little more difficult as the pagan origins of my European culture are to a great extent broken, especially in England, the country of my birth. Many water-deities which were once venerated in Europe are now simply stories, such as that of Coventina, naked lily-bearing British goddess of abundance, wells and springs (13), or Danu, the fertility river-goddess and mother of the ‘Tuatha da Danaan’ or fairy people, whose name, some believe, is the origin of the major European rivers Danube, Dniestr, Don and Dniper (14).   Interestingly, Dewi Danu is also the name of the serpent-riding water-goddess of the Balinese Hindus (15).

 

What Are We Doing with Water and Why?

Water is so much a part of our lives that it may be sometimes easy to take it for granted. One thing which seems of paramount importance to remember is that water represents, both physically and metaphorically, the principle of flow. All water is constantly cycling throughout the world, from the clouds to the ground, to the ocean… and back again. As we are made up largely of water, we literally embody this principle and so it may be worth bearing it in mind next time you consider yourself stuck in any type of situation.

As water is constantly flowing, it can be seen as an infinitely renewable resource. Up until around 100 years ago, the way in which we used water reflected and supported this. Water would fall from the sky, and we would collect it, use it, and re-cycle it. Water flowed from the ground, and we would care for the spring, tend it and ensure that it helped to nourish the land around as well as ourselves. However, when we started using more groundwater, this balance began tipping.

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Groundwater is easier to pump up all in one place and to distribute in measurable amounts so it has become a favourite source for cities worldwide (16). The problem with this is that groundwater can only be replenished by rainwater filtering down through the land, which is currently happening in many places at a slower rate than we are pumping the groundwater up. groundwater also contains more minerals than rainwater so if it is the primary source for crop irrigation, it ends up in causing mineral saturation of the soil, which means you need even more water in order to flush through the salts so that the soil can stay fertile (16). At the same time, we design our buildings and communities to deal with rainwater, the fruits of the sky which we could easily be harvesting, not by catching it but by directing it away. Brad Lancaster, author of Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, calls this modern phenomenon a move from the “path of abundance” to the “path of scarcity” (16).

Mekong Case Study: Controlling the sacred flow

A key example of people following this “scarcity” path is the case of the Mekong river. This giant, the longest in South-East Asia (17), starts in the Tibetan plateau and flows through the Yunnan province of China, then snakes its way through Myanmar and Laos, forming part of the Thai-Laos border (17), before entering Cambodia where it joins the Tonle Sap river, which it causes, once a year, to flow backwards, thus filling the Tonle Sap Lake (18). After this it passes through Vietnam where it splits into many parts at the Mekong Delta, a richly biodiverse area of around 39,000 square kilometres, whose fingers reach eventually into the South China Sea (19).

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Looking from Laos to Thailand across the Mekong.

The river is estimated to be around 4350 km long and is regarded as the 12th longest in the world (17). It is home to many water-species, and the source of livelihood as well as life to millions of animals and humans who inhabit the banks along its length. The humans are not as yet endangered, though many endangered species live here, including the Irrawady River Dolphin, the Mekong Giant Catfish, the Laotian Rock Rat  and the Indochinese Tiger (20). Because of its huge biodiversity new species are often discovered here, with the WWF reporting more than 2,216 newly discovered species since 1997,

“including a color-changing frog, a zombie-making “dementor” wasp, and the second-longest insect in the world”(20).

The name for the Mekong comes partly from the Thai or Burmese word for river, “meh-nam” (Thai: แม่น้ำ) which literally means “water-mother”, and it is along this river that the Naga water spirits are often celebrated, in particular on the night of Loy Krathong (7). This would seem to indicate that the people who live along the river have still some vestige of respect for the river and recognition of it as a giver of life. However, enough people in this region are following the “path of scarcity” that the Laos government has agreed to embark upon the Mekong river dam project, which involves building 11 dams along the entire length of the river. In the Chinese portion, there are already 5 dams which have severely disrupted the water flow throughout the rest of the river, causing drought and imbalance (21). Last year, construction began on the Xayaburi Dam (22), funded by Bangkok-based engineering company CH. Karnchang (23), and on the Don-Sahong Dam, a “joint venture of Malaysian company Major First and the Laotian government”(22). Both dams have been embarked upon without the permission of the Mekong River Commission, an international coalition set up to try to protect the river (22).

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Sunset over the Mekong

“If all 11 dams are built, it will convert the lower stretches of the Mekong River into a series of stagnant reservoirs and irreversibly alter the river system of one of the world’s most important and iconic rivers,(21) according to Maureen Harris of International Rivers (24).

The construction of the dams has been severely impeded by NGOs and other actors who would prefer the river to stay fertile and to continue sustaining life. There are so many factors involved with why the Mekong is being treated like this that there is no one simple solution to the problem, however, it seems important to look at some key ways in which the river is viewed in order to understand how to solve it.

Holy water and its powers

Firstly, as mentioned, many Mekong people still celebrate its abundant waters. Why is this important? Just because a group of people believe that the river is home to the snake-formed gods of the water, doesn’t mean it will stay protected…Does it?

All of our human action comes ultimately from our beliefs and values, and these are grown out of our cultural stories and mythologies. Therefore, if we want to change the actions of people, perhaps we have to first look at the stories they are telling themselves, and if the stories are not effective, help them to change them.

It is clear that those involved in the dam are following stories of scarcity – the idea that there is not enough water and so it needs to be hoarded. This can very swiftly turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy and indeed can already be seen to have done so in Yunnan: the dams there have created water shortages downstream, thus justifying the dam-builders’ fears of water shortage. This type of story can be seen as a negative cycle of erosion which can ultimately cause severe damage to all who tell it. Of course the water shortage is in fact caused by the dam’s blocking of the water’s natural flow, and so if we wish to regain this flow we need to encourage travelling outwards from the cycle of erosion into a new cycle of abundance.

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Many of the water deities throughout history and around the world share characteristics- they are symbolic of fertility, of life, and of the joyous act of procreation. This can be seen in the fact that so many water deities from diverse and supposedly separate cultures are somehow associated with snakes or snake-like creatures, the snake being, as Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell (25) would put it, an archetypal symbol of sexuality and procreation. Perhaps one way we can help to protect the rivers is to remember this symbology and recognise water as the basis of life, which cannot be contained in one place, lest it will become stagnant and sterile.

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Modern myths

Yet it is not enough to just tell stories. We need to be really living this idea of water as abundance, that is, really feeling our connection to water as a sacred and constantly cycling force. How we do this is up to us. Our ancestors did it by personifying the elements and associating them with particular animals, places or trees which we can protect as part of our reverence. That doesn’t mean that we literally think the rivers or rocks are home to spirits, but the spirits, whatever shape they are, can be a useful metaphor to help us to remember the holistic nature of life and how we can help to protect and regenerate the things which in turn protect and regenerate us.

An example of a much more literal stance is the case of the Whanganui River in New Zealand, which, four days ago, was granted the same legal status as a human being (26). This has been heralded as a ‘victory’ for the Maori tribes to whom the river is sacred (26), yet it seems to be missing the point somewhat. If the river has the same legal rights as a human, this means it has the right, to some extent, to be protected. But humans are also subject to laws which mean they can be locked up or have their lands taken away from them. Granting the river legal rights may help in the short term to protect it but throws up questions of the legal rights of all humans, and how they can be contravened. The Whanganui has always been sacred to Whanganui iwi tribe, who recognise it as a living entity. But enshrining this recognition in law must throw up questions about our relationship to all living entities, in an age where humans, animals and plants alike are locked in tiny boxes, killed en masse, exiled from their homelands, separated by barriers of earth and water, subjected to poisoning of all kinds, for reasons as varied as ‘farming’, ‘economic progress’, ‘doing a 9-to-5 job’, or ‘immigration’.

Part of our understanding of this relationship has to come from our understanding of our cultural and personal stories. Perhaps changing your own story is going to be easy, like moving one pebble to release a huge portion of flow. Or perhaps it will take a more careful and considered dive into your life-stream. Whatever it takes, it seems clear that this is an essential part of revitalising our relationship with water around the world, and hopefully restoring the balance and abundance which can so easily be a part of our daily lives.

For more practical ideas about how we can work with flow you can check out my Water Farming article (27) and be sure to check back for the second parts of both articles…

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Sources

1. Helmenstine, A.M (Phd), 2017. ‘How Much of Your Body is Water?’. ThoughtCo, 1/3/17. https://www.thoughtco.com/how-much-of-your-body-is-water-609406 

2. Naylor, S. T, 1997. ‘Varuna’.http://www.pantheon.org/articles/v/varuna.html

3. Miller, M.E, Taube, K.A, 1993. The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion. Thames and Hudson: New York, USA.

4. Condon, R.G, Ogina, J, Holman Elders, 1996. The Northern Copper Inuit: A History. University of Toronto Press: Toronto, Canada.

5. Werner, E.T.C, 1922. Myths and Legends of China. Chapter VII: ‘The Myths of the Waters’. available as an e-text here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/cfu/mlc/mlc09.htm

6. Elgood, H, 2000. Hinduism and the Religious Arts. Cassell: London, UK.

7. Lexa-French, I, 2012. ‘Loy Kathung: The Night of the Naga’. Travelfish, 26/11/12. https://www.travelfish.org/beginners_detail/laos/24

8. Menon, S, 2010. ‘Saparkkavu – Nature Groves in Keralan Homes’. KarmaKerala, 31/1/10. http://www.karmakerala.com/news/2010/01/31/sarpakkavu-nature-groves-in-kerala-homes/

9.  Varanasi Temples, 2017. ‘Importance of the River Ganga’. http://varanasi-temples.com/category/importance-of-river-ganga/

10. Haworth, C, 2015. ‘Sacred Spaces’. Abudnance Garden, 3/3/15. https://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2015/03/03/sacred-spaces/

11. Austin, A.L, 1997. Tamoachan, Tlamocan: Places of Mist. University of Colorado Press: Colorado, USA.

12.  Allen, B, 2015. ‘Last of the Medicine Men: Peyote’. Our Amazing World, 2015. available in parts on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Bb_YC8pmCI

13. The White Goddess, 2017. ‘Coventina’. http://www.thewhitegoddess.co.uk/divinity_of_the_day/celtic/coventina.asp

14. Read Legends and Myths, 2017. ‘Danu’. http://www.read-legends-and-myths.com/danu.html

15. Lansing, S, 2006. Perfect Order: A Thousand Years in Bali. Chris Baldwin (Director), Should High Productions.

16. Lancaster, B, 2013. Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond: Guiding Principles to Welcome Rain into Your Life and Landscape. Volume 1. Rainsource Press: Tucson, USA (distributed by Chelsea Green: New York, USA).   

17. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2017. ‘Mekong River’. https://global.britannica.com/place/Mekong-River

18. Mekong Flows, 2017. ‘Tonle Sap Ecosystem’. http://mekongriver.info/tonle-sap

19. WWF, 2017. ‘Greater Mekong’. https://www.worldwildlife.org/places/greater-mekong

20. WWF, 2017. ‘Wildlife of the Greater Mekong’. http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/where_we_work/greatermekong/discovering_the_greater_mekong/species/

21. Rigby, J, 2016. ‘Dams, drought and disaster along the Mekong river’. IRIN News, 10/5/16. http://www.irinnews.org/news/2016/05/10/dams-drought-and-disaster-along-mekong-river

22. Fawthrop, T, 2016. ‘Killing the Mekong, dam by dam’. The Diplomat, 28/11/16. http://thediplomat.com/2016/11/killing-the-mekong-dam-by-dam/

23. CH. Karnang, 2017. ‘About Us’. http://www.ch-karnchang.co.th/en/#/about/us

24. International Rivers, 2017. ‘About Us’. https://www.internationalrivers.org/resources/about-international-rivers-3679

25. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Chapter 1: Myth and Dream. Pantheon Books: New York City

26. Roy, E. A, 2016. ‘New Zealand river granted same legal rights as human being’.The Guardian, 16/3/17.  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/16/new-zealand-river-granted-same-legal-rights-as-human-being

27. Haworth, C, 2017. ‘Water Farming Part 1: How and Why Can We Start Farming Water?’. http://permaculturenews.org/2017/03/20/water-farming-part-1-can-start-farming-water/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sacred Spaces

All photos by David Ashwanden

A lot of the time, one hears tales of natural landscapes being destroyed: flourishing, paradisal ecosystems interrupted to make way for what generally seems to be a poor exchange: a bit of petroleum, perhaps; a shopping centre, or even a parking lot.

Raising awareness of such operations is important, and the question of whether or not a particular piece of land should be developed often seems even more pertinent when the land in question has a deep cultural or spiritual significance. Yet it seems equally important to explore how we relate to such events, and the extent to which we understand our own impact on sacred spaces.

Mt. Bromo

Saving Space

It seems for every environmentally-destructive operation there is a reaction against such destruction. One example is Greenpeace’s Stop the Tar Sands campaign (1), whose focus is on the destruction of Athabasca, the ancestral homeland of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (2). Though Athabasca is in modern day Canada, the campaign is based in the UK; a recognition that in our increasingly interconnected world we can have an affect on things seemingly far away from us. Another example of this is the case of Quemado. Quemado is a mountain in Mexico which is currently the home of a community of Wixarikas (known in Spanish as Huichol), who have one of the oldest unbroken pagan traditions in the world (3) – i.e. they are still practicing more or less the same rituals which they have practised for thousands of years, rather than is the case with many earth-worshipping traditions, which have been revived after being lost (see for example 4). Quemado has recently come to the attention of some people in the UK, as the Wixarikas’ homeland is being threatened by plans from the Canadian First Majestic Silver Corp and Real Bonanza (6), who both wish to dig up the mountain in order to extract silver from it. This article (5) reports on how the Wixarika used to inhabit the Wirikuta Desert, a place which still remains holy to them and to which they still continue to make a month-long pilgrimage each year in order to harvest the sacred plants which grow there.

The definition of holy

It seems clear that there are many better things which could happen to Quemado Mountain than to be turned into one more habitat-destroying and inefficient mine; and it is admirable that people are taking up the cry of those whose homes are threatened by such entities as the Canadian First Majestic Silver Corp. One thing that seems as though it could be seen from a slightly different perspective, however, is the article’s pointing out the fact that Quemado is a holy mountain – so even more reason for it to be respected. Yet the article itself points out that the Wixarika only live in El Quemado now because they moved there to escape various waves of colonialism in Mexico; “conquistadors, missionaries, slavers, settlers, ranchers, and the murderous Catholic fundamentalists, Los Cristeros”; and even consumer-capitalism (5). Their ancestral holy place is the desert to which they travel every year for the sacred mescalito or peyote (Lophophora Williamsii) harvest. This is not to say that El Quemado is not holy or should not be respected; but rather to throw into question the whole idea of how to define what is holy anyway. the article seems to imply respect for the Wixarika’s homeland as a sacred space; yet the website it is published on is a UK-based one, far away from the mountain in question and the culture which is being held up as admirable; one whose people have “pure open hearts, extreme honesty, zero bullshit, a genuine spiritual focus, utter reverence for Nature, and who exist in a permanent and instantly tangible magical reality” (5).

Perhaps one way in which we can truly learn from such a culture is to bring this kind of thinking into our own lives. The mountain was not holy before the Wixarikas moved onto it; what does this say about mountains? What does it say about the places where you live?

Making Sense of Where we Are

It is of great importance to respect the world in which we live, and if anyone feels they see an imbalance which they wish to set right, they should try to change it. But any change we attempt to make “out there” is going to be severely reduced if we do not look at how we can create more harmony and balance in our own lives. Where you live, is there a place which is generally worshipped? Does your culture make a pilgrimage to somewhere special?

Chances are, if you live somewhere like the UK then your immediate answer to such questions would be “no”. Yet it is worth thinking into this a little. Perhaps you do not feel a particular pull from the place you live; but why do you live there? Maybe there are no places deemed “special” by your country, race, belief system, town, village or even friends which you relate to – but isn’t there somewhere which you find special? This could be anywhere; from the particular way your room feels when you sit in that chair at a certain time of day, to the notable majesty of the tree you pass on your way to work every day. If there are special places in your life which you like to visit, take a moment to consider what makes them attractive to you. Perhaps it is that you can relax there; that you feel a sense of beauty or peace, or you can come together with friends or family and so feel more connected and integrated.

It's amazing what you can find that is special. Photo by David Ashwanden

It’s amazing what you can find that is special. Photo by David Ashwanden

The examples of what such places could be are as many as there are people. It is worth recognising, however, that if you have somewhere which evokes any of those feelings in you, this could also be defined as “holy”. That doesn’t mean that you need to start a religion about it; merely that it commands your respect, and therefore, perhaps, it can help you feel more respect towards yourself and by extension, to everyone else.

Feeling the connection

That you can make your own life more magical by respecting your immediate environment still extends to the rest of the world. Yet rather than following campaigns whose stated aim is the prohibition of something – such as stopping the tar sands – it may be more helpful to look at what we can create. In choosing to sacred-ise the world around us we can help to engender a culture of mutual appreciation. For example, rather than trying to decry the silver companies, which after all are made up of humans who almost all probably believe they are doing the right thing, it may be more beneficial to look at how your own activities fit into the proposed mine. Silver is used a lot for jewellery and decorations; but much more of it is used to create electronic equipment such as phones and laptops (6). Perhaps by choosing to reduce the demand for silver, by using recycled electronic goods and opting for products such as Fairphone (7) over brand-new goods, we can show that the silver mine is not only destructive to the ecosystems around it and to the Wixarika culture, but it is itself irrelevant.

Mt. Arjuna

Making Sacred Spaces

Your holy place could be anywhere; from the local nightclub where you never fail to let loose and have fun with your friends, to that quiet bend in the river under the cliffs where you sit alone, undisturbed by all except the occasional passing sheep. The key thing about the Wixarikas is that they made the Quemado Mountain holy when they began living there. They show their respect to and appreciation for the mountain in countless ways. One admirable thing which humans have is the ability to change our environment. When done carelessly and without thought this leads to such clear ecological disasters as the Athabasca Oil Sands and the Canadian First Majestic Silver Corp’s plans for El Quemado. Yet when done with conscientious respect it is marvellous what we can create.

Feel like you don't have your own 'sacred space'? Maybe you can create one...Photo by David Ashwanden

Feel like you don’t have your own ‘sacred space’? Maybe you can create one…Photo by David Ashwanden

References

  1. Greenpeace, 2015. ‘Stop theTar Sands’. http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/climate-change/stop-the-tar-sands/

  2. Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, 2015. ‘About’. http://www.acfn.com/#!about/c1enr

  3. Stacy B. Schaefer, Peter T. Furst, People of the peyote: Huichol Indian history, religion & survival. UNM Press, 1998. p. 236

  4. Bonewits, I, 1979/2007. “Defining Paganism: Paleo-, Meso- and Neo”. http://www.neopagan.net/PaganDefs.html

  5. Psychic Deli, 2013. “Occupy Quemado: Holy Mountain or Holey Mountain?” Psychedelic Press, 1/3/13. http://psypressuk.com/2013/03/01/occupy-quemado-holy-mountain-or-holey-mountain/

  6. Lewis, Dr J, 2012. “Huichol Indians Protest Silver Mining Plan at Sacred Mountains”. Silverseek, 23/2/12

  7. Ferre, E.C, 2015. “The Many Uses of Silver”. http://geology.com/articles/uses-of-silver/

  8. Fairphone, 2015. “About Us”.www.fairphone.com/story