Goddess Meditation: Pattini by Laura Loomis

I first became interested in Goddess spirituality because of my love of storytelling.  Centuries-old stories yield multiple layers of meaning, and can be told many different ways to get at different truths.  In this respect, the written word is both a blessing and a curse.  It preserves stories that might otherwise be lost; who knows what tales were told about the Venus of Willendorf, or the giant heads on Easter Island?  But it also gives rise to the idea that there is a single “right” version of sacred stories.  Adam and Eve can be a meditation on choice and responsibility, but the insistence on taking the story literally can turn it into a command to disbelieve science.

I’ve been working on some meditations about the connection between Goddess spirituality and political activism.  Last weekend, with people across the country rising up against Proposition 8, I was reminded of a story from Sri Lanki, about the Goddess Pattini.

Pattini (also called Kannaki or Kannagi) began life as an ordinary woman, in a less-than-perfect marriage.  Her husband Kovolan was a philanderer, lured away from her by a beautiful young dancer.  After he’d burned through all their money, the dancer left him broke and alone.  A wiser Kovolan returned to Pattini and begged her forgiveness.

Finding her husband to be sincere, Pattini searched her heart and found that her love was strong enough to forgive him.  She had been living in poverty since he left her, but had saved one valuable memento:  a silver anklet.  She gave it to Kovolan, and he went to the city to sell it so that he and Pattini could start anew.

Unfortunately for Kovolan, the queen owned a similar anklet, and it had just been stolen.  Kovolan found himself hauled before the king, accused of stealing the queen’s precious basuble filled with pearls.  Kovolan tried to explain that this was his wife’s anklet, and it was filled with rubies, not pearls.  (Why the gems were on the inside, where no one could see them, has never really been explained.)

The king didn’t bother with looking inside the anklet.  Like despots of other eras, he didn’t need trials or evidence.  He ordered an execution, and Kovolan was beheaded on the spot.

When word reached Pattini, she stormed her way into the palace and confronted the king and queen.  They laughed, mocking her for marrying a thief.  And not even a good thief – he’d tried to tell some clumsy lie about the anklet being filled with rubies, when everyone knew they were pearls!

Pattini seized the anklet from the king’s hand.  She broke it open, and out poured – rubies.  Stepping across the scattered gems, she left the king and queen weeping with shame, and walked away from the palace, away from the city.

Then she turned around.

Some say she threw the anklet at the city gate.  But the Goddess Devi, watching from heaven, saw what really happened.  Pattini tore off her own breast, and hurled it with all her strength.  The anger in her blood burned so hot that  the city was consumed in flames.

The Goddess Devi saw Pattini’s anger, and her deathless love for her husband.  And Devi took Pattini’s hand and pulled her into heaven, where Pattini became a Goddess, reunited forever with her beloved.

This week, here in California, I understand Pattini’s rage.  My spouse is very much alive, but our marriage was stolen from us by despots who don’t know truth from lies.  Something priceless has been torn away.  And like the king in Pattini’s story, the despots behind Proposition 8 thought their cruel behavior would go unchecked.  They weren’t expecting it to be thrown back at them with fiery outrage.

As often happens with deities, Pattini’s rage is indiscriminate.  The Judeo-Christian God flooded the whole world; the Greek Demeter and the Japanese Amaterasu devastated the planet by inventing winter.  Pattini incinerated the entire city, not just the brutal king.  In myth, innocent bystanders can be used to make a point.  One more reason why literary truth should not be confused with literal truth.  In the real world, there are no bit-part characters.

I’ve seen Pattini’s indiscriminate rage in my GLBT brothers and sisters in the wake of the most recent injustice.  I’ve seen the lashing out — at all African-Americans, or all Mormons, the innocent and guilty alike.  Pattini didn’t have to deal with the fact that her attack left others unjustly hurt as she had been.  But anyone who’s been oppressed —  by racism, sexism, homophobia, injustice  — understands rage.  Even a Goddess.  Unlike Pattini, we have to figure out where to aim it.

Pattini’s grief was so deep that she tore off her own breast.  Her anger was so great that it burned down a city.  The rest of us don’t get to do the things that a Goddess does to assuage her pain.  But we all know the grief, we all know the anger, and we all know the depth of love that makes the grief and anger possible.  We know the point where the soul says:  No more!

Pattini refused to go quietly.  Her rage couldn’t be ignored, because it was a rage for justice.  She fought with everything she had, and the fire of her righteous indignation burned all the way to heaven.

And that, I believe, is how a woman becomes a Goddess.

Laura Loomis is a social worker and fiction writer in the San Francisco area.  Her “How a Woman Becomes a Goddess” series originally appeared on www.dailykos.com.

14 thoughts on “Goddess Meditation: Pattini by Laura Loomis”

  1. Laura, congratulations! What an inspiring vision! I love the way you weave and integrate different layers of experience giving space for “the ‘real’ and the unreal” to emerge into a narrative play. Pondering on your thoughts, “One more reason why literary truth should not be confused with literal truth,” leads me to contemplate ways to mediate between spirituality and practicality. Your stories bring so much visual imagery and sound qualities that I wonder if you might consider putting them into plays; some time in the future. I will be following your stories to gain further insight into the conundrums on my path to Goddess. In Goddess, V


  2. This was written immediately and posted on dailykos on the heels of the passage of Prop 8 in California (the references to “last weekend” refer to the time of the writing). A lot’s happened since then, and I’m feeling more and more optimistic about the future of marriage equality. I’m surprised by how deeply the anger still comes back when I reread what I wrote then.

    One of the big stories at the time was that some polls showed that there was higher support for Prop 8 among African-Americans than other ethnic groups. Some in the media (Bill O’Reilly in particular) seized on that in a blatant attempt to pit the two communities against each other. Fortunately, that doesn’t seem to have worked very well (and it’s not as if the two communities don’t overlap).

    The weekend after the election, I was feeling too angry and defeated to do anything at all. Then I saw our niece (who lives with us) heading out the door, stopping to tell us she was on her way to a rally in protest of Prop 8. She proudly held a sign that said, “What about MY family?” And I knew there was no chance of giving up.


  3. Thank you. But when I searched “How a Woman Becomes a Goddess” the search did not progress… I would like to read more about this interesting topic. Please let me know when you have a moment.


    1. I also tried this today Vrinda, because I wanted to see if there are been any recent additions that I had missed, and you are right. It’s difficult to find. I finally found the posts to the series by searching not for the title of the series, but for “Tara the antisocial social worker.” When you get to her page(s) you need to go backwards at least 1 page (or at least I did), to Nov. 2009 which I think was the last post in the series. Then just keep going back in time and you will find the other posts. (Probably my problem in searching for the name of the series was that I wasn’t setting the date far enough back in time.)


      1. Yes, the posts were written between November 2008 and November 2009. I am thrilled that you were both interested enough to look for them!


  4. Although I do not endorse violence attributed to Gods or Goddesses and do not endorse it as method of problem-solving, I do get very angry too. In recent months, I have found that the only way I can drive through the areas where wetlands are being destroyed due to road-building in the Gulf of Kalloni Lesbos is by chanting a curse which goes: As you ##ck the Source of Life, you will be ##cked. Which of course is true because wetlands are the Source of Life, the places where life emerged from the sea, the sponge that prevents flooding, a home or resting place for resident and migrating birds, and so much more. This curse is a variation on a favorite song, As you bless the Source of Life, you will be blessed, original by Faith Rogow. In my mind it does not attempt to cause violence as revenge, but rather names the consequences of violence that is being done in the name of improving transportation of goods and people.


  5. Thank you Laura for telling Pattini’s story and writing so honestly your present day reality. I too hate when people try to pit one group against another. As a black lesbian disciple of Jesus and lover of all I give them fits! :)


  6. I found this post intriguing not just because I agree with your convictions, but I admire the way you weaved together literature with contemporary politics. This question was central for me during my time in Maduari, India, where I researched women’s relationship to the mother goddess, Shakti. I often wondered how a female deity so revered in the temple interacted with gender politics in my material surroundings, and, needless to say, there was no easy answer. As you said, “literary truth should not be confused with literal truth.” and yet the literary can inspire us in way that are quite mobilizing and effective in our everyday realities.


  7. I belong to that part of the world- the South Indian state of Kerala-where the cult of Kannaki the Pattini goddess is most widespread other than the island nation of Srilanka. I would like to point out that the dancer in the story of the goddess Pattini has been often misrepresented as a cunning whore who was bent on looting the wealthy merchant. But contrary to the popular image, ‘the story of the anklet’ which describes the story of the Pattini portrays her as an innocent young beauty who was an accomplished dancer who had won many accolades for her talent. She was gifted a precious jewelled garland by the king which she gave to her maid- as was the practice of her community- to put on auction saying she will become the wife of the highest bidder for the same. This was quite natural as she belonged to the ganika community, the equivalent of the Greek heteaira. Ganikas are not prostitutes who have no choice over whom they should pleasure. They are women who are devoted to a life of training in various arts which are listed among the finest of arts in various ancient texts. Ganikas enjoyed prestige and position in the society and Buddhist and Hindu legends speak of several rich and famous ganikas known for their beauty and artistic talents. Ganika Amrapaly is described in Buddhist legends as endowing a magnificent grove on Sri Buddha. One of the ancient Hindu lawgivers and great saint Bharttrhari is described as the son of a ganika. They had freedom of choice in selecting their clients and their services were not always sexual in nature. Some of them were great scholars and their clients were usually people belonging to the upper echelons of the society.
    Kovalan who was passing by came upon the scene and bought the garland. He was taken to Madhavi’s(the name of the dancer) residence. Once he met the beautiful lady he forgot his wife and stayed there until he suspected her of infidelity, which the epic says was a misunderstanding. He had a daughter by her whom he named Manimekhala(girdle of gems) after a goddess who saved one of his ancestors from shipwreck. This daughter is the heroine of another epic which celebrates the values of Buddhist way of life. Manimekhala is described as a Buddhist saint with miraculous powers who was gifted a magic bowl named amudasurabhi which could give a never ending supply of food which she used to feed the needy.
    The epic says that Madhavi defied the traditions of her community by choosing to be a chaste wife of Kovalan, the one and only man in her life, incurring even the wrath and enmity of her mother. Kovalan was insecure because of the beauty and talents of Madhavi and left her to return to his wife. When Madhavi learnt of Kovalan’s death she left her home after distributing her wealth among the poor and the religious and entered a Buddhist monastery as a nun. She also dedicated her daughter to the Buddhist monastery after breaking off all ties with her family.
    Madhavi is in every way as pure as the goddess Pattini and stands on a par with her. The word Pattini means ‘chaste wife’ and Madhavi deserves to be known as one. If anyone deserves blame it is Kovalan who went after a dancer leaving his wife. He did not stay faithful to her also deserting her and a little daughter. Having more than one wife was not taboo in that social milieu so Madhavi cannot be blamed for his conduct. Vilifying Madhavi echoes the age old patriarchal sentiment which portrays women as the evil temptress absolving the male gender for all their crimes and failures. Here Kovalan is the one who messed up the lives of the two women whose lives turned into tragedies because of his impetuous nature. Madhavi is not the anti-heroine in the “story of the anklet.”The author of the epic, Elango Adigal-himself a Jain monk, portrays her as a victim of circumstances. Madhavi did not know Kovalan nor did she purposefully set out on luring him to her. She meets him for the first time after he himself arrives at her home after buying her garland. He had seen her dance at the royal event and was besotted with her.


  8. I belong to the South Indian state of Kerala where the cult of the Pattini is the most prominent apart from the island nation of Srilanka. The epic “the story of the anklet” which describes the myth of the Pattini was composed by a Kerala prince Elango Adigal when Kerala was still more or less part of Tamil culture. The epic doesn’t at any point say that Madhavi, the dancer whom Kovalan, the husband of Pattini fell in love with was a woman of loose morals. In fact she is described in glorious terms. She qualifies to be known as Pattini or woman of great chastity herself. Having been born into a family of ganikas(like the hetaeiras of ancient Greece), a community whose members were held in high respect at one point of time she was of ethereal beauty and was well versed in all the different arts described in the ancient texts like music, dance, garland making, painting etc. Kovalan meets her for the first time at her debut dance performance. The author of the epic says that her ethereal beauty, her flawless performance and enchanting movements led the spectators to believe that she was Urvashi,the foremost among the celestial nymphs herself. Kovalan watches her perform and is besotted with her. The epic says that Madhavi was still very young, a girl in her adolescence at that time. The king of the land gifts her with a jewel studded garland which is then put on auction as was the practice of her community so that the highest bidder becomes her suitor. Kovalan buys the garland and becomes Madhavi’s husband. Contrary to the practice of her community Madhavi chooses to be a chaste wife to Kovalan, even going against her mother who wants her to entertain rich clients. Kovalan lives with her as husband and begets a daughter whom he names Manimekhala, in honour of the sea goddess who had rescued one of his ancestors from a ship wreck. Madhavi loves Kovalan dearly and is dedicated to him. But Kovalan suspects Madhavi of infidelity which the epic says was a gross misunderstanding and returns to his first wife. In fact, the author who was also a Jain monk says that it was the compulsion of Kovalan’s fate which led him to his tragic death which could have been averted if he had stayed with Madhavi. Madhavi leads a desolate life after Kovalan leaves her. She doesn’t heed her mother’s advice to take another lover. She remains faithful to Kovalan even in his absence. And when she hears of his tragedy her grief knows no bounds;she doesn’t take her own life because of her daughter but she renounces every thing and enters a Buddhist monastery where she leads the rest of her life as a nun. She dedicates her daughter also to the monastery and this daughter is the chief protagonist of another epic named after her. She becomes a nun of great spiritual powers and is gifted with a magical bowl which produces never-ending supply of food with which she feeds the poor and the needy.
    If anybody can be blamed for the tragedies in the lives of the two women it is Kovalan’s impetuous nature. It is the age old patriarchal view of woman as the essential temptress even where men go wrong which comes through when we blame woman for the frailties and follies of men. At least Madhavi doesn’t deserve this tag. She is just as pure and sweet as the Pattini herself-a Pattini in her own right.


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