The cruel miracle of spring

The cruel miracle of spring March 15, 2012

So spring has arrived.  It’s beautiful.  We have our windows open.  Just in time for the spring equinox.  Not that we won’t have one last freeze in the next few weeks, like nature’s own Walpurgis Night — the last ride of the spirits of winter. Nature is a tease.

And right on time, my allergies are back.  Yesterday I was walking around in a fog — and not one produced by allergy medication.  I have yet to break out my antihistamine stash.  When I can’t breathe, this invisible film forms on the world which dulls all my senses.  The very thing that draws me closest to divinity, the natural world, is also the thing that sabotages my efforts to draw close to it.

I just read this disturbing story that Annie Dillard wrote in her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

Is beauty itself an intricately fashioned lure, the cruelest hoax of all? There is a certain fragment of an ancient and involved Eskimo tale I read in Farley Mowat that for years has risen, unbidden, in my mind. The fragment is a short scenario, observing all the classical unities, simple and cruel, and performed by the light of a soapstone seal-oil lamp.

A young man in a strange land falls in love with a young woman and takes her to wife in her mother’s tent. By day the women chew skins and boil meat while the young man hunts. But the old crone is jealous; she wants the boy. Calling her daughter to her one day, she offers to braid her hair; the girl sits pleased, proud, and soon strangled by her own hair. One thing Eskimos know is skinning. The mother takes her curved hand knife shaped like a dancing skirt, skins her daughter’s beautiful face, and presses that empty flap smooth on her own skull. When the boy returns that night he lies with her, in the tent on top of the world. But he is wet from hunting; the skin mask shrinks and slides, uncovering the shriveled face of the old mother, and the boy flees in horror, forever.

Could it be that if I climbed the dome of heaven and scrabbled and clutched at the beautiful cloth till I loaded my fists with a wrinkle to pull, that the mask would rip away to reveal a toothless old ugly, eyes glazed with delight?

That’s a vivid image!  Dillard’s book is a wonderful study of the coexistence of beauty and horror in nature. I like this story in particular, disturbing as it is, because it invokes those Neopagan motifs of the “Triple Goddess”, maiden, mother, and crone (or, to use Robert Graves’ term which seems more appropriate in this case, “hag”).  There are some days when the beauty of the world does feel like a cruel trick and nature seems to stare at me like “a toothless old ugly, eyes glazed with delight”.  Today, she is more like a maiden, but with the a veil drawn across her.

I need to go take a pill …

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  • joakimwaern

    That story was eerie! Interesting that you mention Robert Graves and his idea of a Triple Goddess. Here in Europe that idea has been heavily criticized.

    • By mentioning Graves I don’t mean to imply that the Triple Goddess is some ancient pagan motif. It’s obviously not. Check out my discussion of this at
      There are some indications of the theme in Porphyry and Servius. But these are late Roman authors. Servius in particular was most likely being Graves’ primary source for this motif — see, but the idea is mostly Neo-Pagan.
      Interestingly, Freud also did describe a similar motif in an essay in 1913 — see
      As I as discussed in the first link above, Graves’ vision of the Triple Goddess was definitely androcentric and even misogynist, so its initial appropriation by the feminist spirituality movement is ironic. I understand that the motif has since been repudiated by feminists who argue fairly that it over-emphasizes women’s fertility and sexual desirability to men. But I don’t invoke the Triple Goddess motif as some kind of role model for women. In fact I think it’s generally a mistake to treat the “gods” as role models of any kind. The Triple Goddess motif as I understand it is a poetic expression of an archetypal experience. While not all women are mothers, almost all women (and men) do have mothers. In fact, I believe Graves intended it to be a poetic expression of the archetypal experience of men only, since his original formulation of it was unquestionably androcentric: The trinity that most concerned Graves was not the maiden/mother/crone, which describes the female life cycle, but rather the mother/lover/layer-out, which describes the female from the male perspective (specifically from the perspective of the dying god) — as men encounter woman first as mother and second as bride.