I live in a Motherless house.
I lie awake and listen always for the word that never comes, but might.
I bury my face
In something soft as a breast.
I am a child
Crying for my mother in the night.
—Carol Lynn Pearson, “Motherless House” (1980)
Our family saw Moana a few weeks ago and loved it. I can’t call it a historically or culturally correct portrayal of the sea-going peoples of the Pacific. I have read compelling arguments that it is not, and I have no reason to disagree. Disney pretty much never gets those things right. But it is mythically correct, and in ways that deserve attention.
And the myth runs deep in this one. For one thing, the narrative uses a female hero as the basis for a pitch-perfect Campbellian hero journey. This alone is a major step in making the supposedly universal monomyth actually universal. It is also fairly competent entry into the Fisher King category of myths in which a land becomes sterile because a king is wounded, and the knight must restore the land by healing the king. (Both Oedipus and King Arthur come from this mythic grouping). By making both the knight and the king female, Moana strikes a blow for equality.
But these aren’t the myths that I am talking about when I say “mythically correct.” In fact, both of these aspects of Moana are part of its revisionist mythmaking—necessary and important revisionism, to be sure, but revisions all the same. What I am talking about is something much deeper. (Spoilers Ahead).
I am talking about the divine feminine, a vital element of the human mythos that is also at the heart of Moana. The archetype that propels the film is the story of Te Fiti, the Island goddess whose heart is stolen, and, with it, the power of the islands to create life. The loss of her heart turns the goddess into something fierce, sterile, and destructive—and, perhaps more importantly, something not recognizably feminine. Moana’s journey to restore the heart of Te Fiti is actually a journey to restore an image divine femininity that has not really been lost, but has been obscured beyond recognition.
And this makes it an urgent and vital narrative for modern human beings. And, by “modern,” I mean anybody who has lived in the last 3,500 years, which is when the aggressively patriarchal monotheistic religions began their work of trying to rid the world of the divine feminine–of obscuring the Mother’s heart.
This was a consequence of monotheism, which only had room for one God with one gender. When humans worshiped many gods, divinity could be both male and female–and it made sense to assign female characteristics to the powers associated with things like like sex, marriage, fertility, agriculture, and anything else connected to creativity. The fierce battles between the Old Testament prophets and worshippers of idols were not aimed at suppressing Baal, the male Canaanite god, who was (in the beginning) too similar to Yahweh to matter much. They were aimed at stamping out the worship of Astarte and Asherah—the female deities who could only be worshiped illicitly.
No matter how hard the prophets tried, the goddesses would not go away. The Old Testament is (among other things) a record of the failure of the prophets to stamp out the divine feminine, despite giving it their best effort for around a thousand years.
This happened in Christianity too, as the patriarchal religious culture of the early Middle Ages eventually gave way to the adoration of Mary, which remains an important part of Catholic devotion. When the divine feminine is suppressed, She finds ways to assert herself because the connections between femininity and creation go to deep in the human mind to be suppressed for long.
Almost alone among Abrahamic monotheists, though, Latter-day Saints recognize the existence of a Mother in Heaven in our official theology. Without this doctrine, our understanding of exaltation could not be reconciled with our understanding of eternal families. Eternal progression occurs in family units; both men and women become gods. This is a profound and immensely satisfying doctrine that ennobles both men and women by creating a version of divinity that wholly includes the masculine and the feminine.
But Mormons have always had real problems talking about Mother in Heaven in ways that recognize our deep human need to know Her heart. She exists in our worldview as a logical necessity, but not as an actual divine presence. She plays no part in our ritual or our liturgy. And any mention of Her is immediately followed by some nonsensical argument about why we can’t ever talk about Her—like the idea that God doesn’t want her to get her feelings hurt or something—thus immediately pairing every acknowledgment of Her existence with an assertion of her weakness. As a result, our revolutionary belief in female divinity has not lead to the expansion of female authority or ecclesiastical autonomy that one might expect from such a belief.
This, I think, is the sort of paradox that makes poetry indispensable. And we should listen to our poets when they speak–often in voices muted by ecclesiastical discomfort–about the Mother’s Heart. Indeed, the idea of Heavenly Mother was first called out of obscurity and darkness by Mormonism’s first great poet, Eliza R. Snow, in the poem “O My Father,” which is now one of our most beloved hymns: “In the heavens are parents single? No, the thought makes reason stare! Truth is reason, truth eternal Tells me I’ve a mother there.”
And there’s more. I had the good fortune to see Susan Howe’s magnificent play A Dream for Katie at BYU in 1992—a play that gestures towards Mother in Heaven as it explores the spiritual power available to Mormon women. That same year, Carol Lynn Pearson had significant success on the national stage with Mother Wove the Morning, a one-woman play that incorporated both Mormon and non-Mormon narratives into an extended meditation on femininity and the divine. Both of these plays, and many other (but not nearly enough) works of Mormon literature, foreground the aching desire that the protagonists, like all human beings, have to feel the presence of a divine Mother. To restore a heart that has been hidden for much too long.
The eclipse of the divine feminine has wounded our world–Disney got that much right in Moana. Our tradition has something to say about this, but saying it will require more of our poets. This is what poetry does best: it takes deep questions that don’t have easy answers and turns them into journeys that matter as much as the destination. And it turns our deepest yearnings into beauty and truth. Poets are prophets too, and it may very well be that uncovering the Mother’s heart is a prophetic work that only poets can do.