The Chrysalis and the Dream
by Randall Auxier
This carving is female. Of course it is. But how do we know? If I knew that, I’d . . . I’d . . . what? Get the copyright? No, that would be wrong. Use the knowledge to my personal advantage? I hope I wouldn’t do that. What would you do? I guess I’d try to forget it. The Lakota sage Lame Deer says human beings can’t live without mystery, and what’s most important about the conversation between women and butterflies is that it’s not for me, I’m not supposed to know.
This figurine was made by a Zuni artist, someone registered with the tribe to produce works that are “approved,” not knock-offs. But the whole business of Native art is sort of a racket these days. The art has grown to accommodate its market: what the mainstream middle in the dominant culture will buy, which means that their expectations come to be embodied in the designs, materials, and even the symbols employed. The geometry in this figurine may have religious meaning, but if it really had been made to express that meaning it probably wouldn’t be for sale on the internet. This fetish is a commodity, but it could have a long future coming someday to take on its own deeper role. One never knows.
If you saw this on the shelf at a friend’s house, you might think, in this order:
“Oh, look at the pretty turquoise.”
“Hmmm, a butterfly woman.”
“Very smooth, what’s it made of?”
“Oh, I like the etching.”
And then you would actually say: “Where did you get this?” Very few of us would regard this figurine or the incorporated symbols as truly potent, religiously or otherwise. We would say it “represents” this or that meaning for the Zuni, or the native peoples of the southwest, or some such. But our first four responses are a better guide to thinking about her, I believe.
We middling moderns haven’t altogether lost our sense that symbols are little potencies. If you sign on the dotted line, you did it. Your signature is you. If you said before the preacher and the cloud of witnesses “I do,” you did. Your spoken word has the magical power to bind you. And if you have an autographed picture of Mickey Mantle, some of the Mantle “medicine” invests the picture, and that’s not only why you can sell it, it’s why you frame it, protect it, and so on. You get the idea. There is a vague realm of power in which symbols have real force. We all experience it, believe in it. It is illegal to lie under oath. But what is an oath? We speak a few magic words and then, somehow, if we put forbidden words (called “lies”) after them, within a limited time and circumstance, we can actually lose liberty, property, even life.
Lame Deer says that the world of potent symbols is the “real world.” It is closer to our dreams than to our waking lives. Symbols aren’t just marks humans have made, with their writing and speaking and painting and carving. The symbol reality includes nature, from the rocks to the crawly things, to the birds of the air. There is communication between and among all of the creatures –they are profoundly connected to each other. Our separations into beast and plant are temporary. Our connections are permanent. Lame Deer says that the rocks are the Old Ones. The red pipestone is sacred to the Lakota people, he says. It is not sacred because it is pretty, or because it is used in making jewelry. Rather, when the Old Ones speak to us in their special colors, we are supposed to notice what they are saying. That is why we make them into jewelry and objects with religious potency, bring them into our homes, notice them over and over.
The turquoise in the butterfly woman is impossible to ignore. When you think “Oh, look,” you are answering the Old Ones, not calling them. They called you. The bits of turquoise are arrayed on the figurine like jewelry she wears, or like the stars in the night sky, or both. Why, after all, shouldn’t the butterfly woman wear the very stars as her necklace? She is old enough isn’t she? She has known the stars since the beginning. She watches them from her place, the sacred ground. Look at her eyes. The Zuni artist shows us how she sees, although we already know it.
And in this thought we begin to grasp the constellations and the zodiac. Far from the “pathologies” of the so-called “primitive mind,” these are the patterns of order that affix us to our own place in the cosmos. If you stood on any other planet, the constellations would be completely different, but they would still fix you to a place –a different place. You would still see constellations. That act of seeing is about occupying just one place, being given just one view of the cosmos. But one is enough, since everything is there, including you. You aren’t limited by this. If you want to travel faster than light, look from where you are right now at Sirius and then move your gaze to Polaris. You covered 400 light years in that gaze while your feet never left the ground. Do you want more than that? It is the teaching of the turquoise, and there is so much more.
The form of the butterfly woman is an archetype, binding your very human center to your world. Putting wings on women, and men, is almost a necessary image, an association of natural forms so inevitable that every culture created it. We fly in our dreams, do we not? Aren’t those the best dreams of all? And don’t you think you know what it’s like to fly? Does it really matter that it’s “only a dream”? Don’t you sometimes have wings? Almost as forceful is the further idea that different kinds of wings mean different things. The butterfly does not soar like an eagle, she flits and floats and flutters. Where is she going? She seems to know, but she’s in no rush. She takes the time to investigate this and that. What she will find worthy of a pause, or why does she meditate on just this spot and no other –and for amazingly lengthy spans? Is she praying? She might even land on your shoulder. She isn’t afraid of you.
Admiring the texture of this figurine, you respond to the surprising results of friction. A river stone might be this smooth. Is her shine the work of an artisan, acting under the sacred canopy of purpose? Or did nature buff her to such a luster by its own action? Maybe it doesn’t matter. What, after all is she made of? So very smooth, so curvaceous. Her materials speak as surely as in her forms. You know this, if you let yourself know it. You don’t need a geologist. She comes from earth. That is her chrysalis.
The etching adorns her skin, her outermost extreme. It is her language when she wants to speak to us of temporary things. Time will fade and remove these scars, returning the etched language to the ephemeral world of passing meaning. Human language is young. The earth is old. When we speak, we sail meanings across the surface of time’s ocean, a voyage across, seconds or minutes or hours, even decades and centuries, if the vessel is sturdy and the seas are favorable. They rarely return to their port of origin. There is no point in trying to be overly specific about what they must mean. It is hard not to think of the golden records on Voyager spacecraft, with operating instructions for the vanishingly unlikely event of one finding another harbor. But is our own etching on the surface of time so different? It is a dream, but the very real dream called waking life which is too brief to do anything more than fling a message in a bottle to eternity. The earth is the chrysalis from which she and we emerge into a precious moment of starlight.
These men are staring at the brightest star, blowing on whistles made of eagle bones. If the eagle hears, she may bring a vision. But she doesn’t say what she knows to just anyone.