I returned from a week’s retreat to prepare for the Wood Sisters Autumn Equinox Gathering which, as we met on Saturday 29th September, enabled us to also celebrate Michaelmas. As Steiner parents, Sue and I have been part of many Michaelmas events at the school over the years and so have a good collection of odd memories of small children dressed as gnomes and suchlike. I have to confess to being a slightly sceptical Steiner parent and lacking in the necessary reverence and wardrobe full of long skirts (sorry!) But my son,Tam, has thoroughly enjoyed the Michaelmas task each year, where one’s inner fire and will (and health and safety rulings) are challenged by an obstacle course including muddy pits to fall in and bonfires to jump over…. all this being a much needed balance to the community created harvest soup which he routinely detests.
So our Wood Sisters gathering this year had an unusually strong dash of Steiner inspiration blended into our usual wisdom pots, meditation and storytelling. Our story this time was ‘The Three Golden Hairs’, as collected by the Brothers Grimm and a part of which is touched on in ‘Women Who Run with the Wolves’. Sue however told a much fuller version, which moved us from the birth of a ‘lucky son’, through his tests and trials at the hands of his future father in the law, ‘a King who loved to hunt’, to the conclusion in his marriage to a beautiful princess and claiming of the kingdom.
The story features three sanctuary spaces, in the form of two hidden huts in the wild woods and one cave in the fiery kingdom of a powerful character called Dede Vesvede, and three meetings with wise women. The first of these meetings is with three Fates or Fairy Godmother figures who bless the new born boy, in the woodland hut where he is born into a charcoal burner’s family, first with challenges (!), then with the capacity to meet them and finally with marriage to the princess. The second wise woman is met by the now young man, Plavacek, when he seeks shelter in her hut in the wildwood on his way to the palace. He is bearing a letter from the King to his Queen with instructions to kill the young man, but the cunning old woman changes this for instructions to instead marry him to the princess. On his return to his palace, the King, frustrated in this second attempt on the boy’s life, sets him a seemingly impossible quest to bring back three golden hairs from the head of Dede Vesvede, variously described as the Devil, a giant or a kind of elemental power like the sun. On his journey to the kingdom of this awesome character, the young man meets three people with three questions, each of which is about how to restore freedom, vitality or life. In the cave home of Dede Vesvede, Plavacek is helped by the final wise woman or grandmother of the giant. Having hidden the young man under her skirts (!) she rocks her giant grandson to sleep and not only plucks out the three golden hairs but also gets answers to the three questions. Plavacek then returns sucessfully and claims his beloved and his kingdom.
As is probably obvious(!) the motifs that especially spoke to me were the three triads of transformative space, transformative questions and the transformative power of women’s wisdom. The spaces all have that familiar flavour that many of our know from our own dreams and longings for that ‘secret hut in the wilderness’ or the deep, dark cave of the Great Mother. Such images remind me of the possibility of that deep, wild and transformative place within myself and of the importance of finding and returning to it.
Equally important is being able to ask ourselves the real questions, about (to quote from Ignatius) what gives life? As well as being able to be honest about when we have lost contact with our own inner Source and Tree of Life and have got trapped in work and activities which are costing us our freedom and creativity. In the story, part of Dede Vesvede’s answers to the questions is to identify the problem, as he can see the mouse gnawing at the apple tree’s roots and stopping it from thriving. He can see the toad that blocks the flow of waters from the sacred well. Awareness is the key to freedom.
The final and most powerful three is that of the figures who represent the wisdom of the feminine. What great characters they are! A ‘Fairy Godmother ‘ who sees challenge and the strength to meet it as a blessing. Give me that over the wealth and beauty any day… it sounds much more realistic and useful! Next, an old woman in the great British and European traditions of the ‘Cunning Woman’ – one who knows and is not afraid to act to rewrite the story of a life. That’s another strength I’d like to re-contact in myself and look out for in the wise women I encounter. Finally we have the Great Mother or Grandmother Herself, with that wonderful mix of being rather rude and somehow both deeply comforting and relentless at the same time…one moment she is rocking her huge son to sleep and the next painfully pulling out his hair and asking her clever questions and drawing out the wisdom that is needed to bring life to the four kingdoms. (I’ll restrain myself from getting too Kabbalistic here, but the different realms seem uncannily like the four dimensions of consciousness in that tradition which has fed into the esoteric aspects of our folk wisdom culture) Her love and comfort is what transforms Dede Vesvede each night from a grumpy old man at sunset to the morning sun in this fiery realm of divine light. How ironic that later versions have turned him into the Devil… but like Jack’s response to the ‘giant’ at the top of the beanstalk, the little human ego has a Jack like tendency to get all fearful and controlling in the face of greater realities. After listening and reflecting together on the story, in meditation we too visited our own inner transformative spaces and asked our own questions about what gives and blocks life and many helpful insights began to emerge.
After our bring and share feast, which was resplendent as ever, we got a little ‘Steinery’ by making and baking some Michaelmas dragon bread. I don’t think I was the only one to enjoy the child-like pleasure of getting really messy with flour, egg, milk and more. Each woman sculpted her own loaf and what a very diverse community of dragons emerged from the oven, including gluten free and vegan versions! Our day ended in a gentle collaborative communion as we broke dragon bread together and shared sloe gin, along with giving and receiving our love and blessings to and from each other.