Hieratica: A Repository of Joy and Learning
During Women's History Month, March 2018, the Petaluma Historical Society and the Mythica Foundation sponsored an exhibit entitled "Women and the Search for Wisdom". After I was invited to show my own work, "Hieratica", I was also asked to serve as the co-curator for the event along with my teacher, Dr. Kayleen Asbo. All in all, it was a tremendous experience in every way. One of the events that was part of the month-long series of programs was a "Sunday Salon" where I got to give an hour-long presentation about my work, my philosophy, Sumerian culture and myth. It was very well-received, but unfortunately, not caught on video. Here is a "silent movie" version of the presentation as well as the Artist's Statement accompanying my work in the museum exhibit. Perhaps I will add a voice recording track to the video at another time.
Nancy Castille Artist's Statement
“Hieratica: Seven Hymns to the Goddess Inanna”
“Hieratica” is an artistic response to a series of ancient poems dedicated to the Sumerian goddess, Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth. Inanna was the goddess of fertility and the daughter of the god of wisdom, Enki. She was charged with the important job of giving to her people the laws of their society. She also undertook an arduous trip into the Underworld, remaining strong and fearless as she encountered many trials and challenges upon her journey. At the end of her journey, she is transformed and resurrected, and emerges stronger, humbler, and better able to serve her community, a source of inspiration for all. In the many narratives dedicated to her, we get to know the complexities of her character. We see her develop from young wife to mature ruler of her kingdom. We see her gain wisdom on her life’s journey.
When in my own journey reading about mythologies from various cultures, I stumbled upon those of ancient Babylon, I knew I wanted to pause and learn much more about this topic. The myths were earthy and passionate; they told tales of a people who deeply pondered the vicissitudes of life. The well-known Epic of Gilgamesh was my first exposure to these myths. It told of a great friendship between two men and the deep sadness one of them feels at the death of the other. It told of the hero’s quest for immortality. I could hardly believe that I was reading something that might have been written 5,000 or more years ago. The narrative was sophisticated and compelling. I was struck by the deep passion in the stories.
As I explored further, I came upon poems having to do with a very important deity in the Sumerian pantheon, the goddess, Inanna. I was struck by the power and responsibilities invested in a female goddess figure, and by the frank and uninhibited portrayal of human sexuality in the poems. There was nothing prurient or shameful in the depictions. Inanna is depicted as lusty, powerful and strong. I realized that I had found an ancient treasure trove and I wanted to respond further by creating a work of art based on my experience.
When I chose to illustrate the Seven Hymns to the Goddess Inanna, I had in mind to create seven prayer flags using a technique that I developed that I call “E-Quilting”. I would create electronic mosaics of some sort, incorporating scans of gems and colorful batiks into electronic collages using Adobe Photoshop software. As I started to design my project, I realized, however, that I would need an inscription of some sort for each poem that would resemble an ancient script. I had to take a detour from my project to create my own symbolic language.
I combed through the poems, extracting the most important words and images. For each of the 200 images extracted, I would create a unique symbol. I classified the images extracted into 5 separate categories: Transcendence, Home, Earth, The Sacred, and Community. The fact that the words could be classified into these categories told me that the poems were religious in nature, revealing something about what these ancient peoples valued most highly in life.
After 4 years of hard work creating the symbolic language, the symbols were finally assembled into poems. I then created a beautiful mosaic frame for each poem based on Islamic mosaic patterns.
The Greek word, “hieratica” comes the Greek hieros, meaning "sacred". “Hieratic” is commonly defined as "appropriate to sacred persons or duties; priestly, sacerdotal". Hieratica was originally a cursive writing system used primarily by sacred scribes in ancient Egypt, using ink on papyrus in order to speed up the writing process for the ancient scribes. During early Christianity, the term came to denote priestly writing of religious texts. In short, there wasn't anything in the etymology of this wonderful word that I didn't like; I knew that I had found the perfect name for my work.
The Sumerian myths are told by ancient peoples, on the cusp of the primitive and the mythic, emerging into a world organized by agriculture and the rise of large city-states. Although they are “only myths”, they tell of a still deeper history – the history of the human spirit as it has traveled through time, trying to make sense of its environment and constantly searching for meaning in life. Our souls are fortified and strengthened when they are exposed to such stories, stories that tell us more about the spirits and souls of our distant ancestors. From them, we derive a wisdom fearless and deep. The heart and soul of mankind shines out from the darkness of the past.
Nancy Castille is a scholar, artist, and musician. She has a B.A. in Religious Studies from Oberlin College and did graduate work at Graduate Theological Union. After earning an MBA from UC Berkeley, she worked as a Senior Finance Manager at several major banks in San Francisco for 25 years. In 2012, she took an early retirement to devote herself more fully to her personal interests, including a return to her passion from her earlier years – mythological studies and the study of religion. She is currently a student of Dr. Kayleen Asbo.