DURGA AND THE BUFFALO

 

The Rig Veda has definite and real claims to being the oldest book in the world.  Conventional scholars claim it was first “codified” around 1500 BC, but it is probably a good deal older.  I will not speculate here on how much older, except that it almost certainly dates from the Indus Valley civilization, before 2000 BC. 

We discover truly wonderful tales in the Rig Veda.  One of them is the story of Durga.  Durga is the Hindu mother goddess.  She is gentle, loving and nurturing toward all her children, but full of rage and vengeful toward those who would threaten her offspring.  I believe one clue that this story predates that of Theseus is that Durga here is the powerful heroine, slayer of monsters.  By the time her story gets around to the Greeks, the male patriarchal system has supplanted the old mother goddess.  Therefore Theseus is the powerful hero and Ariadne only his helper. 

Durga has many arms, and for this reason is often referred to as Spider Woman. 

Durga

In the Rig Veda, Durga Spider Woman slays the Buffalo Monster.  To summarize briefly a complex tale, Siva and the other gods in Heaven are threatened by a powerful demon who takes the form of a buffalo.  The gods, all male, are helpless to do anything.  Siva orders them to combine their shakti (spiritual power).  Out of their combined shakti is created Durga, slayer of demons.  She is not created by the gods, but is rather self-created. 

The demon, whose name is Mahisa, is a shape-changer, able to take on the forms of an elephant, a lion or a warrior.  A fierce battle ensues, with Mahisa uprooting mountains with his horns and flinging them at Durga.  Durga herself is mounted on a lion (this detail is important).   Finally she triumphs, chopping off his head while he is in the middle of changing shapes.  Durga is victorious.  She is remembered and worshipped in India today, in her aspect of protecting and loving mother. 

I believe this is the earliest version known of “Spider woman defeats the bull monster.”   Note the role of Durga’s mount, the lion, in defeating the buffalo.  Thus, the sun, as it moves from Spring into Summer, goes from the house of Taurus to the house of Leo.  In this sense, Lion every year overcomes Bull Monster.

By the time this story gets to Athens, the shape-changing monster, bull, lion and man, has become simply a man-bull hybrid.

Sarah Winchester knew something about astrology.  The number thirteen often appears in her home, as staircases with thirteen steps and a washbasin with thirteen drains. (A lunar year has thirteen months.)  There were 52 skylights, one for each week of the year. 

Durga is probably the oldest form of Sarah’s tale, but I found yet another version equally as intriguing.  No one knows how old this version may be, but I would be willing to bet it could compete with the Rig Veda.  This is a Native American legend. 

 

Spider and Coyote

 

Here I must inject a local note.  I am writing this in Lake County, California, where we are knee-deep in mystery, legend, myth and history.  In fact, this is how I happened to come across Spider Woman.

Lake County, California is dominated by two imposing geographical features.  One is Clear Lake itself, probably the most ancient lake in the Western U.S. and the largest natural lake in the State.  Above the lake sits Mt Konocti, an old dormant volcano.  Inside the mountain are huge unexplored caverns.  We know this both from modern geological soundings and from historical record.  At one time there were a number of entrances to the caverns, all of which are now either forgotten or covered by landslides. 

Sunrise

There is a man here who has been searching for an entrance for years.  His name is Bob Zalusky.  A World War II Flying Tigers veteran and ex-airline pilot, he is driven by curiosity.  With his crew of volunteers, he has been combing the mountainside looking for a secret entrance.  He believes he has come close several times. 

Several years ago, Mr Zalusky discovered a geoglyph of a spider on the mountainside.  A geoglyph is a very large petroglyph, often visible only from the air.  In fact, the way he found it was by studying old aerial photographs. 

Zalusky expressed the belief that this spider glyph marked an entrance to the caverns, since the local Pomo Indians believed that Spider was guardian of the Underworld.  At this point, I became skeptical since I had never heard this aspect of Spider in relation to Indian lore.  I did know about Theseus, and thought perhaps Zalusky was confusing Indian with Greek mythology. 

However, after doing a little research I had to conclude that Zalusky was right – at least about the Indian lore.  I located the reference in a book titled Pomo Myths by Samuel A. Barrett, Volume 15.  The publication date is November 6, 1933.  Barrett was a well-known ethnographer, but most of his books are out of print.  The Lake County Museum has two copies on file.  Checking Amazon.com, I found only one other book by Barrett listed, that one selling for $100. 

In Native American lore, Arakne may be referred to as either Spider Woman, or often just Spider.  The Dineh (Navajo) believed she taught people the art of weaving.  In one legend, a hero is escaping from his enemies; Spider Woman, atop Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly Arizona, lets down a thread and allows him to climb to safety.  The California Pomo, who did not use looms, believe that Spider Woman taught the skill of weaving baskets.  (Pomo are universally recognized as having the finest basketwork in North America.) 

In our local Pomo legend, Spider helps Coyote.  Coyote is a complex character, sometimes good, sometimes evil, often both.  He is clearly related closely to Anubis, the Egyptian jackal god of the dead, as well as Hermes, Greek trickster god.  In many Native American tales Coyote is associated with legends of the Flood, either causing it, saving humanity from it, or perhaps both.  Like Hermes and Anubis, Coyote is privileged with access to the Underworld, or abode of the dead.

In Pomo, Coyote has a second-in-command, Great Chief Madu’mda.  Madu’mda has his headquarters inside a cavern under Mt Konocti.  In order to visit him, Coyote must pass through the Zenith Gate, which is surrounded by rattlesnakes.  The snakes keep out anyone not summoned by Madu’mda.  And how does Coyote get through the Zenith Gate and down into the subterranean caverns where Madu’mda dwells?  Why, with the help of Spider Woman, of course. 

Spider Woman is gatekeeper.  She picks up Coyote in a hunting sack, then lets him down on her thread into the mountain.  When Coyote is prepared to leave, she pulls him up again.  Here, it is Coyote who warns humanity of the impending Flood.  People escape not to Mt Konocti, but to nearby Mt St Helena.  (Geologists, incidentally, have proven that the Sonoma Valley was at one time underwater.)

In researching this subject, I discovered there is also a body of myth found in West Africa involving Anansi, who is both Spider and Trickster – but that’s outside the scope of this brief essay. 

In all of these legends, I find memories of some ancient cataclysm.  Durga must subdue a monster who flings mountains around.  Theseus, son of the god of floods, destroys the great power at the heart of the Minoan Empire.  Coyote and Spider are involved with floods. 

And so the legend passes down to Sarah Winchester, lonely and perhaps demented widow.  I wonder where she learned her story, what books she read, or what teachers instructed her?  Her home, Winchester House, was her labyrinth, of which she was creator and mistress.  Many people think she was mad, because her house makes no sense.   I don’t think she was mad.  I think she knew what she was doing.  She built a labyrinth so that dangerous, uncontrolled forces could not find their way to the surface.  But the real labyrinth is not the house; it is the human mind. 

Epilogue:

One last tale about Sarah.  According to traditional lore, Sarah believed she was pursued by spirits of those slain by the Winchester rifle.  These included many Indians and animals such as the buffalo.  On the lawn of Sarah’s house there is a statue of an Indian.  There’s no buffalo.  I wondered if she had ever encountered any type of bull-creature.  Then I ran across this supposedly true account:  Ex-President Theodore Roosevelt, after leaving office, decided to tour the West.  Apparently on impulse, he decided to drop in on Mrs Winchester.  He walked up to the front door of Winchester House and rang the bell.  The door was opened by a maid, who supposedly did not recognize the President and therefore asked him to go around to the tradesmen’s entrance.  Roosevelt, snubbed, went off in a huff and never returned. 

I don’t believe this story either.  That is, I don’t think the maid failed to recognize our former President.  What makes me skeptical is Roosevelt’s well-known political sobriquet:  The Bull Moose.

 

Reference:  Sarah Pardee Winchester – A Driven Woman, Genevieve Woelfi and Julie Grant, Redwood Publications, May 1994.

Addendum:

Since composing the above thoughts, I have read a novel titled "Rose Madder," by Stephen King.  I personally found the book disturbing because it concerns an insane, homicidal, wife-beating cop.  I have had occasion to deal with exactly such an individual.  I am grateful that he is now dead instead of me.  King is a consummate artist when it comes to character delineation. 

The reason I mention this here is that King's novel operates on two distinct levels: The mundane and the esoteric.  The mundane level is the crazy cop, all too real and familiar, at least to me.  The esoteric concerns the archetypal tale of the spider and the labyrinth.  The villain/cop is the archetype of the Bull of Minos, trapped in his subterranean maze.  The heroine of the story, his abused spouse, finds a way to tap in to the power of Spider Woman to destroy the bull.  She comes near to being destroyed herself by that same power. 

It's my guess that the casual reader would find this book a good thriller, but would be unaware of the mythological structure underlying its story.  But there's no doubt in my mind that King was aware when he wrote it.  Another example of how it is that ancient tales never die. 

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Footnote

This story keeps getting better and better, or at least more complicated. Recently I learned of an incident which sheds more light on the legend of Spider, Guardian of the labyrinth. 

Since this essay was originally composed, Mr. Zalusky, in poor health, has retired to a nursing home. He has turned his project over to a group of younger people who still pursue their search for an entrance to the caverns of Mount Konocti. Most of their explorations are carried out in secret so as to discourage casual tourists. It must be remembered that Mt. Konocti can be a dangerous place, covered with thick brush, infested with rattlesnakes, and with steep drop-offs and concealed lava tubes. The unaware hiker might easily drop into a hole and never be seen again. 

This incident was related to me by a former member of the exploration team, who has since dropped out of the project in part because of the hazards involved. It seems the team had been investigating several lava tubes near the top of the mountain. Eventually they discovered one which they believed might be an entrance to the caverns below. Several of them entered, only to be attacked by a large number of aggressive spiders. 

The explorers immediately backed off. None was bitten, but they were understandably dismayed. These spiders were about the size of tarantulas, but much more aggressive. The team thought it over and returned some time later with pesticide bombs. They tossed in the "bug bombs" and went away, to return a few days later. This time when they entered, the spiders were still there, but apparently twice as agressive. Perhaps they were angry? The intrepid explorers again retreated, but this time managed to capture one of the creatures in a jar. It was sent away to a lab for identification and to find out how poisonous it is. 

This is as far as my informant's information goes, having broken off contact with the explorer team. It seems that Spider is still guarding the entrance to the Underworld. If anyone reading this has more news, please let me know. 

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