Passaggiatina 2019, the latest summer art residency in the Appenines in Atina hosted by Chris Simpson and Jude Cowan Montague has just come back to earth. These are my thoughts on a summer in the high peaks of Italy and my own encounter with the ancient goddess Mefiti.
The river Melfa that runs around the hill under which the antica storica area of old Atina is situated is named after the ancient goddess. But most signs of her ancient cult are covered by the churches for the Catholic church.
I have been to Atina many times, explored the wild scenery of the neighbouring Parc d’Abruzzo, learned some of the stories of the town such as the artist models in Paris who set up the first all women art school who came from the area and who are remembered by the museum the
Académie Vitti but although my friend Riccardo Orazio Paola told me stories of the ancient goddess I did not open my eyes to see traces of her. This year she made herself known to me and I could no longer ignore her.
One of the reasons she has been hidden is by how keen the Catholic church have been to cover over pagan pasts. We took a trip on this vacation up to the Valle de Canetto near Settefrati (seven brothers) close to where the River Melfa begins at Capodacqua. This is a place of pilgrimage, with a church dedicated to the Black Madonna, a saint whose figure has appropriated many older forms of worship. Here, the pilgrimages of Mefiti are walked by Christians, in the footsteps of ancient peoples who came to ask the goddesses help with their problems.
To request for help, Romans and other pagan peoples (others were here before the Romans in particular the Samnites and/or Osci) created ex voto objects, terracotta eyes, legs, feet, body parts that might be suffering. These tiny tributes called to the goddess for her divine power to ease troubles. A headache might be cured for a pilgrim that climbed to her temple and brought a terracotta symbol of their afflicted, painful part.
Our Italian friends and guides, Ornella and Fabrizio, took us to the church of the Madonna di Cannetto in our modern art pilgrimage. The Sanctuary is a beautiful modern adaptation of a facade, with a glass backing onto the gorgeous greenery of this mountain spot. But when we sought the ancient pagan temple, below the church, the sacred mystical site of previous religion there was no sign. We were shocked and empty-minded as we went on to the rifugio where we were to spend the night, far too many for the small cabin, but the number of us enabled us to have a great adventure, accidentally smoking ourselves out of the cabin as we slept. We poured onto the green grass under the starry celestial dome to the surround sound of giant deer bellows.
Mefiti, a personication of poisonous gases and volcanic vapours at the mouth of the volcano guards the underworld. Remembered in the bible as the devil Mephistopheles, animals would be sacrificed to her by being taken to the craters and left to suffocate in the vapours. Truly sulphuric. Perhaps, were people also sacrificed. She was a goddess of Pompei, beware.
Her symbolic animal is the duck. The little duck, originator of the world, the creator of everything, is revered by certain histories, stories and groups in the Finno-Ugric speaking tribes going from Finland, Karelia and beyond, Eastwards. There are stories of how the duck laid the egg from which the world was born. I had just been in Finland remaking stories from the Kalevala, looking at gender, playing with identity with fellow artist Riitta Hakkarainen. I had just acquired a rescue duck from animal rescuer Tracie Parsons. Every morning Matt Armstrong (my other half) and I have been taking her for swims in the paddling pool in our Mottingham home and helping her graze, eat her slugs and snails in the hope that one day soon we will be able to rewild her somewhere suitable. The love I feel for this duck bonds me to the goddess Mefiti.
During the art residency I began to draw a series of work of the goddess who I imagined in diverse ways. I began with a story that transmuted into something more active and graphic as the sequence developed. Using enamel paints I twisted and turned the dripping paint over the page like a dancer, summoning something in common with some techniques of abstract expressionism. The Asilo Infantile Beatrice proved a good place to work in this way, as it does every year, with its high ceilings, it’s wide, fresh spaces, windows open to the afternoon storms and the mountain air.
Occasionally a golden eagle floats over the valley and the birds go quiet. In the mornings and afternoons the swallows circle, circle, circle before they fly far away on their migration. Like their cousins in Finland they are going to the ancient land of Lintukoto, the home of all birds, on the world’s edge where sky and stars meet. The birds fly there every winter by following the Milky Way. It is where our feathered friends go after death to meet the small human-like beings who live alongside them beneath the dome of the sky.
Where is Mefiti now? We can draw and paint her back to life with comics, drawings, summon her with sounds and chants. There is so little known about her history that she opens up to us as a cipher we can project onto. She is a mystery to be brought back to life. A powerful goddess. A figure of gas, smoke, of the other world, of the hot melt heart of the centre of the earth. She sits in a desert of rock, her bird her companion, with little understanding of these human creatures that bother her with their problems. Fracking breaks open her roof, stirs her into action. But the volcanoes of Mefiti have more power than we can imagine. If climate change will be accelerated faster than we can imagine it is through her domain bursting open as humans tip the balance, confusing the planet with their insistent civilisation of plastic, petrol and the creep, clearance and saw of agriculture.
Today and Tomorrow
.Mefiti stretches her twigs
why do they fight? she thinks
crying to her duck
via her mobile. The signal’s poor
up in the heights
where we forget everything but our clothes
while trouble brews down in the vapours.
The end-of-you is rumbling, Beauty.
She’s sloshed on vino
talking sulphur and truth
interrupting GPS with a glitch
that stops the planet from swinging.
We made her so anxious
she’s opened the gates beneath the church
and o dio are they going to blow.
She doesn’t know why, she’s running around.
If you see her duck
take care of the little thing
who created the universe.
I heard her flock-quacking as she flew
calling to this generation who ignore the cluck of time.
They’re off to the supermercado in headphones
where shoppers pick plastic forks and knives
to dine on filtered fountains.