For millennia, we humans have found hope in the dark of winter through holidays featuring lights or the sun such as the Winter Solstice, Diwali, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Soyal, Christmas, and others. As the people of our beautiful, fragile planet celebrate these traditions in these perilous and momentous times, I have been wondering what fresh perspectives on hope our global goddess myths and stories can offer.
Let’s start with the Greek goddess of hope, Elpis. In the Greek Pandora’s story as usually told, Elpis/hope is all that is left for humanity after Pandora lets misery escape into the world by opening her box, However, according to Patricia Monaghan in her New Book of Goddesses and Heroines, originally Pandora was the ever-abundant Earth goddess and her box was a pithos, a clay jar used to store food, but also remains of the dead awaiting rebirth. In her Roman incarnation as Spes, the goddess of hope also served Fortuna, the goddess of destiny who brings people together to create life. Finally, She is associated with Salus, the goddess of health.
I find many messages in the story and associations of Elpis/Spes. First, hope is not just an attitude of seeing the glass as half-full or having faith that all will be well. Hope is a force, a tool in our Pandora’s toolbox that is powerful enough to be a goddess. Hope is something we can always choose to align ourselves with even when it is hard to perceive its existence at any particular time. So the question becomes, what kind of force is it?
Hope is an essential part of humanity’s make-up. It is already and ever in our treasure box. If we look at human history, we can see that it has been beside us through the Ice Age and other environmental changes and catastrophes, wars, famines, plagues, poverty, violence, injustice, and all other kinds of challenges requiring persistence and determination to survive. The calamities and sorrows any human overcomes in even one lifetime show that we are inherently hopeful creatures who also believe that life’s joy and love are worth monumental efforts.
Hope is an expression of the ever-continuing cycle of life, death, and regeneration, the most basic fact of our existence and that of everything around us. Without it we could not move from the finality of death to the renewal and rebirth that infuses every dawn and leads us on our journeys to each new phase of our lives. Hope connects us to the cycles of the universe Herself as galaxies and stars are born, live, die, and transform into new galaxies and stars.
Other stories from around the world tell us more about the powerful force of hope. Amaterasu is the Japanese Shinto goddess of the sun. After her brother wrathfully ravaged the world, Amaterasu retreated to a cave, plunging the Earth into utter darkness. Her people gathered at the cave’s entrance, not knowing how to lure her out. Finally, the goddess of the dawn and merriment, Uzume, began to sing, dance, and wildly remove her clothes, causing everyone to laugh. Amaterasu peeked out to see what was happening and was amazed and delighted by her reflection enough to come out of her cave, offering the world a second chance as the sun returned to provide the light necessary for crops to grow and all beings to live on.
To me, this story demonstrates how hope is the force of creativity and joy that enables us to find ways through the impassible, to illuminate solutions that seemed irretrievably invisible, to discern the wholeness in that which appears impossibly mangled. Laughter, singing, and dance are the means by which hope moves us from aspiration to transformation. They remind us of the world as we wish it to be and gives us the ability to turn despair into vision.
Finally, let’s look at Gum Lin of China, of my favorite stories and another tale of overcoming an existential threat. Gum Lin is a young woman living in a village devastated by drought because a dragon has gated a mountain’s lake and will not allow the waters to run down. Gum Lin joins with the dragon’s daughter to draw him to the surface by sweet singing while Gum Lin courageously swims to an underwater cave, grabs the gate’s key, and lets loose the waters.
Here we find another message about hope: its force needs to be translated into not just creative vision, but also action. If we have the bravery to believe we can effect the changes we wish, we need hard work, determination, and persistence to effect them. These actions might be expressed in directly achieving positive change, finding ways to remind others that new and different ways of being and thinking are possible, helping to bring about a world of compassion and justice by practicing these qualities now, and more. And, of course, we need to take action not just for ourselves but for others in need, especially when repression or other circumstances make vision and action hard or impossible. Without these efforts, hope is merely a daydream.
In the wilderness, far away from the electric lights of cities, I have often stood outside at night and seen hundreds of stars, wondering who else is looking up while hoping for a better world. These moments have reminded me of the many times I have seen hope’s power firsthand in the lives of friends and family who have remained hopeful in the most dire circumstances, found good-humored and innovative solutions, and pursued them with resolution. When you wonder if all is lost, look up at the sky or into your own Pandora’s treasure box to find the divine force of hope waiting for you.
Carolyn Lee Boyd is a writer and student drummer. Her essays, short stories, memoirs, reviews, and poetry have been published in, among others, Feminism and Religion, Return to Mago E-Zine, The Goddess Pages, Matrifocus, The Beltane Papers, SageWoman, and various anthologies. She would love for you to visit her at her website, www.goddessinateapot.com where you can find some of her free e-books to download.
Photo of lamp: Phadke09, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo of starry night: ESO/H. Dahle, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons