Book Review: Helen Luke, Women, Earth & Spirit


While on retreat last month, I found a book, Woman, Earth & Spirit: the Feminine in Symbol and Myth by Helen Luke, in the monastery library.  I love myths and fairy tales and the perfect synchronicities contained therein.  And I love an explanation of some of their more subtle meanings.  So I borrowed it and have been thoroughly moved by Luke’s rich words.

I was particularly interested in Luke’s essay on the myth of Demeter & Persephone, ‘Mother and Daughter Mysteries,’ outlining the goddesses’ passages through death, to eventual unity with Hecate into the “threefold nature of woman made whole” – mother, maiden and sibyl.

Luke interprets this story as a map of the journey towards full womanhood.  She points out that in Western society, we have no conscious ritual to differentiate ourselves from our parents.  I was intrigued to contemplate such a ritual, or one recognising the end of girlhood and the loss of all that ‘youth’ has held for me.  What would it look like to allow myself to “experience consciously the violent end of (my) daughter identification,” as Persephone did?

And that was just one essay!  Luke, with her profound knowledge of Jung and his extensive exploration of symbols, shed such light at times on the feminine experience, that I found myself in tears at her exquisitely accurate naming, of both the wound and the possibilities for healing.

In ‘The Life of the Spirit in Women,’ which explores the animus (the unconscious masculine values) at play in the lives of women, Luke states:

“As we look back on the extremely rapid emergence of woman in this century into the masculine world of thought and action, it is not surprising that she has fallen into increased contempt for her own values…  It is exceedingly hard for us to realise, in the climate of Western society, that the woman who quietly responds with intense interest and love to people, to ideas, and to things, is as deeply and truly creative as one who always seeks to lead, to act, to achieve.  The feminine qualities of receptivity, of nurturing in silence and secrecy are (whether in man or woman) as essential to creation as their masculine opposites an in no way inferior.” (p. 3, 4)

I certainly feel within myself a level of contempt for some aspects of the feminine, and at the same time, a huge defensiveness around any such devaluing I perceive in others towards these aspects in me.  I feel contempt, and I project my contempt.  To me, Luke is naming the feminine wound we all share.  She asks:

“How are women to recover their reverence for and their joy in this great archetype (of the feminine) of which the symbols have always been the earth, the moon, the dark, and the ocean, mother of all?” (p. 11)

I am fumbling my way (in the dark, perhaps the best place to be??) towards my unique expression of such reverence and joy, but it definitely feels like I must take up my cross and bear the contempt, the disregard, of society at not having produced anything, thus far, that our masculine Western culture would consider valuable.  My inner journey is invisible. I must value it alone, if necessary.

Luke alludes to this:

“As has been said, no one, either man or woman, creates anything without the co-operation of the contra-sexual element, but when a woman of the kind I am describing (academic/mental) tries to produce original work she goes at it, as it were, upside down.  She starts from second-hand masculine thinking and is frustrated – even panic-stricken, when the feminine soil on which she is working refuses to come to life.  And this situation extends into her whole life.  She has then to learn to start from the receptive, the hidden, the goal-less aspect of Yin, and gradually the true light of the spirit will shine in the darkness, and the intellect too will be illumined and come to its fruition.” (p. 16)

Trusting the “goal-less aspect of Yin” is much easier said than done, in our culture!

And I appreciated this honest reflection:

“Let it not be supposed that through any of our human transformations we are freed from our conflicts.  The healing of a neurosis comes not from a removal of the conflicts that were its cause, but precisely by a realisation of the reality of these conflicts and by a full and free acceptance of the suffering they bring.  ‘All opposites are of God – therefore man must bend to their burden, and in so doing he finds that God in his “oppositeness” has taken possession of him, incarnated himself in him.  He becomes a vessel filled with divine conflict.’  That which used to be so laden with guilt and pettiness is filled with meaning.” (p. 20, quoting Jung)

Luke’s other essays were likewise insightful, including:

  • ‘Goddess of the Dawn,’ exploring the symbol of resurrection and a resurrected Christianity that is relevant to a new age, with a beautiful interplay of astrological imagery;
  • ‘Straw and Gold: Consciousness and the Mature Woman,’ touching on the story of Rumplestiltskin;
  • ‘Money and the Feminine Principle of Relatedness,’ exploring the concept of genuine exchange; and
  • ‘The Revenge of the Repressed Feminine’ as described in the three Greek plays that make up the Oresteia.

Such a rich and eclectic exploration of fairy tales, Greek myths, biblical story and Jungian psychology – I was thoroughly nourished and invigorated!  I look forward to reading more of Luke’s work.

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Helen M. Luke. Woman, Earth & Spirit: the Feminine in Symbol and Myth. New York: Crossroad, 1990 (first published in 1981).