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.