All week we have been warming our spirits at the sacred fire of Candlemas / Imbolc, the Celtic holiday in honour of Brighde, Irish saint and Goddess of poetry, smithcraft and healing. Imbolc falls approximately 6 weeks between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, one of the 8 festivals of the Celtic year.
In the Greek Orthodox Church, February 2 is celebrated as Ypopantis, the presentation of Jesus at the Temple, 40 days after his birth, in accordance with Mosaic law. This day also marks Mary’s ritual return to the world after forty days of postpartum seclusion. This practice was known in the Western Church as ‘churching’ or blessing a new mother after 40 days; Hindu tradition also recommends women spend up to 40 days in rest and isolation after childbirth.
In the west, the customs of confinement and churching have dwindled since the 1960s, but in Greek Orthodox tradition until very recently, these forty days of isolation for mother and child were routine. A special word, lechóna (λεχώνα), from the ancient Greek for ‘bed’ or ‘couch’, denotes a woman in this special time.
During this period, the lechóna was not permitted to leave the house or do household work. In the days of extended families and tightly-knit communities, there were plenty of female friends and relatives to take care of the new mother, her family, and her home. One village woman I know, a grandmother now, looked back with appreciation on the forty days following childbirth as ‘the only rest I ever had’. Another joked that she had lots of children in her youth just so she could keep having that time ‘off’ as a lechóna.
The lechóna and her newborn child were considered especially vulnerable to malevolent spirits or the ‘evil eye’, and the postpartum confinement was hedged with many rituals for their protection. At the same time, the extraordinary power of female fertility, activated through giving birth, was seen as a possible danger to other vulnerable persons (such as men) who had to avoid contact with the lechóna.
This is much more complex than the simple idea of ‘pollution’ which patriarchal religions project onto new mothers. The village grandmothers, when I raised the question of ‘pollution’ with them, lifted their eyebrows high in the eloquent Greek signal of absolute disagreement. ‘Let them think that,’ said one. ‘We know we need the rest.’ ‘Yes,’ said another, we don’t have to go to church, we don’t have to go anywhere, just sleep and sleep and feed the baby. It’s lovely.’
During the forty days of confinement, then, Mary’s powers are concentrated on her new baby and on her own recovery. When this period is over, according to the theology of the Greek grandmothers, she returns to her task of taking care of the world.
I heard a similar idea expressed by another grandmother, in Bulgaria this time. I was in an exhibition of icons with a beautiful depiction of the ‘Bogoroditsa Troeruchitsa’, the Three-Handed Madonna. I knew about the original icon in the monastery of Hilandar on Mount Athos, and the 8th-century story of John of Damascus, whose hand was cut off by the Caliph, then restored by the Madonna, but when I asked the old grandmother mopping the floor why the Madonna has three hands, she had her own explanation: ‘Well, you know, She has so much work to do! She takes care of the entire world, and She has the baby too! Of course She needs three hands! Anybody would!’
The Hilandar icon has the third hand at the bottom left, so it does indeed look like it is helping to hold the baby. In the miracle-working icon in Troyan Monastery, Bulgaria, the third hand is centered on the region of Mary’s womb. This may symbolize Her power of divine creation, making it visible and accessible to the pilgrims who flock there for healing.
It reminds me of the five-fingered amulet known as the Hamsa (also called the Hand of Miriam in Judaism, the Hand of Fatima in Islam, and the Hand of Mary among Levantine Christians). This powerful protective amulet, often shown with an eye, is found throughout the Maghreb, the Middle East, and India. It was known as the Hand of Tanit in ancient Phoenicia and the Hand of the Goddess in Mesopotamia. Some say it represented Tanit’s vulva as well as her hand, and many Berber images I have seen include a mandorla- or vulva-shaped motif in the design. I believe the shape of the eye and the shape of the vulva may also be linked.
One reason the woman’s hand is holy is because of the work that women do. From Neolithic times onwards, women’s creative power was expressed not only in bearing and nurturing children, but in many other ways of bringing things into being, such as spinning, weaving, pottery, and agriculture. Carol Christ argues that women invented all of these technologies, as well as Neolithic religion. The woman’s power to bless and protect, as well as to create, is also shown in the symbol of her hand.
As Carol Christ, Heide Göttner-Abendroth, and others have shown, Neolithic civilizations were most likely egalitarian matriachies which honored mothers and the mothering principle. These societies taught men and women alike to care for the sick and vulnerable. The idea of Mary as divine caregiver illustrates this principle, but the task of caregiving need not fall to women alone.
In our time, we can draw inspiration from these early societies and understand that everyone – not only mothers – can embody qualities of peace, protection, and nurturing in the world. This is a central value of feminism. To quote my friend Carol Christ, ‘we have the power and it is up to us to create societies of peace.’
As Matthew Fox explains, Julian of Norwich defined evil as ‘everything that is counter to peace and love‘, and perceived the divine mother’s presence in ‘actions of service and love and compassion‘ which everyone can do. And St Seraphim of Sarov said, ‘Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved.’
Through our own actions of peace and compassion, we can bring the nurturing and healing qualities of the Divine Mother into the world. We can be her third hand.
Laura Shannon is one of the ‘grandmothers’ of the worldwide Sacred / Circle Dance movement. She trained in Intercultural Studies (1986) and Dance Movement Therapy (1990), and holds the M.A. fin Myth, Cosmology, and the Sacred from Canterbury Christ Church University in England. Her primary research in Balkan and Greek villages seeks out songs, dances, rituals and textile patterns which descend from the Goddess cultures of Neolithic Old Europe, and which embody an ancient worldview of sustainability, community, and reverence for the earth. In 2018 Laura was chosen as an Honorary Lifetime Member of the Sacred Dance Guild. Her articles and essays on women’s ritual dances have appeared in numerous publications. Laura is also Founding Director of the non-profit Athena Institute for Women’s Dance and Culture. She lives in Canterbury, Greece, and the Findhorn community in Scotland.