“Fierce Feminine Divinities of Eurasia and Latin America: Baba Yaga, Kali, Pombagira, and Santa Muerte”, by Malgorzata Oleszkiewicz-Peralba.

Reviewed by Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D

Fierce Feminine DivinitiesProf. Oleszkiewicz-Peralba, who is a professor of modern languages and literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio, opens her new book by telling us how the goddesses named in the title—and their worshippers today—are marginal and liminal. The term “liminality,” she says, referring to the work of Victor Turner, comes from two Latin words, limen (“threshold”) and limes (“limit”) “and indicates a state in between structure, which is characterized by ambiguity and ambivalence and is usually connected to marginality, inferiority [and] ritual powers” (pp. 3-4). The four divine figures discussed in the book, she continues,

may be seen as embodiments of liminality and marginality with many of their attributes, such as being outsiders and being connected to liminal activities (e.g., messenger, trickster, sexuality). They are also perceived as dangerous, uncomfortable, rejected, or representing the rejected, but at the same time attractive, as they embody wisdom, magical powers, and the truth of human condition (p. 5).

Chapter 1 is titled “Baba Yaga, the Witch from Slavic Fairy Tales.” The sections of this chapter—“Liminality”; “Death, Fragmentation, and “Transformation”; “The Bird Goddess”; “The Serpent, the Dragon, and the Life-Death Threshold”; “Sacred Colors, Helpers, and Horses”; “Womb and Tomb: The Initiation Hut, the Oven, and the Mortar”; “From Matriarchal Goddess to Contemporary Witch”; and “Stones and Embroideries”—show the depth and breadth of the author’s research. She gives alternate names for Baba Yaga in several languages and shows the goddess’s connections to (or descent from) the Neolithic bird and snakes goddesses and explains how she lives today only in fairy tales and folklore.

Chapter 2, “Kali: the Ultimate Fierce Feminine,” opens with prayers to “the ultimate creator, preserver, and destroyer” who is the “epitome of the types of goddesses we are looking at in this book” and “in many ways the opposite of what we think of in connection with the word ‘woman’ or ‘goddess.’” Kali, the author writes, is “the primordial wilderness and chaos, original form of all things and eternity, but also change—time, destruction, and death” (p. 53). The sections of this chapter are “The Ten Mahavidyas,” “Fragmentation and Periphery,” “The Goddess Dhumavati,” “Kali and Other Fierce Divinities,” “Possession Trances,” and “Diasporic Kali.” Of the Ten Mahavidyas (Great Wisdoms) given in Tantric Hinduism and Buddhism, Kali is “foremost” and represents “destructive power that is simultaneously purifying and transforming” (p. 55). Information about the diasporic Kali in this chapter is especially interesting.

Chapter 3, “Pombogira, the Holy Streetwalker,” is the first of the two chapters about newly-created, popular Latin American goddesses. Sections of this chapter are “Background,” “Origin and Name,” “Characteristics,” “Types of Pombagiras,” “Gypsy Entities,” “Umbanda, Exus, and Marginality,” and “Origins of Pombagiras: The Yoruban Awon Iya Wa and the Portuguese Bruxas,” Whereas Baba Yaga and Kali are ancient and Indo-European, the goddesses presented in Chapters 3 and 4 are modern Latin American goddesses who meet the needs of people who live near or at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. Because Prof. Oleszkiewicz-Peralba lived in Brazil for several years, her research is less from the library than right out on the streets, where people see Pombagira as both a trickster and one of the most powerful entities of the newly-invented Umbanda religion. But she, too, has deep roots, as we see when she is compared to the feminine deity of the Gnostic text “The Thunder, Perfect Mind.” Most of the illustrations in this chapter are photos taken by the author, and Table 3.1 shows the “Continuum of Afro-Brazilian religions” from 19th-century Spiritism to varieties of Umbanda and Candomble (p. 93). The author concludes this chapter by noting that because the people who worship and appeal to Pombagira live in a society that is often lawless and unfair, they have little access to “law and order” or medical care. “Individuals are not permitted to take justice into their own hands, even in the face of blatant and obvious…injustices. … Pombagira is out to remedy that” (p. 101).

But if life is difficult for the poor people of Brazil, it seems to be worse for poor Mexican people, even those who live in the U.S. Santa Muerte is their new goddess:

The unofficial saint, Santa Muerte or Holy Death, another contemporary manifestation of a fierce liminal deity connected with marginality, inferiority, outsiderhood, and ritual powers, … can be traced to the Tepito neighborhood in Mexico City’s marginal colonia Morelos, in mid-twentieth century, where it started as a personal cult that spread widely about 20 years ago and reached an unprecedented popularity in the past ten years (p.104).

In Chapter 4, “Santa Muerte, Death the Protector,” we learn about the skeleton we most often see in Day of the Dead displays. The sections of this chapter are “Portrayals and Names”; “Methods of Devotion and Devotees”; “Devotional Centers, Transnationality, and Scope”; “Death and Contemporary Mexican Society”; “Historical Antecedents”; “Death in Mexican Arts and Folklore”; and “Santa Muerte, Pombagira, and the History of Latin America.” People build private and public altars to Holy Death and ask her for favors and sic her on their enemies. Again, because there is almost no scholarly work on Santa Muerte, Prof. Oleszkiewicz-Peralba did real-life research out on the streets, in bodegas and other stores, and in people’s homes. As in the other chapters, most of the illustrations are photos she took herself, including an altar in the trunk of a low-rider car. (Such altars are very popular.) Although Santa Muerte is “traditionally” shown wearing the robe of a Franciscan monk, photos also show her in traditional bride’s clothing, surrounded by decorations, in semi-disguise as the Virgin of Guadalupe, and clothed in dollar bills. People dress this skeleton figure to express their own beliefs and desires. Here are a few lines from an invocation to Santa Muerte:

Lady of death
Skeletal spirit
Most powerful and strong …
Make repent all his life
The one who harmed me or gave me the evil eye
And may it turn against him right away.
For the one who deceives me in love
I ask that you make him come back to me
And if he does not listen to your strange voice
Good spirit of death,
Make him feel
The power of your scythe… (p. 122)

The book concludes by repeating the connections among these four goddesses and their importance in the lives of people most of us hardly ever notice. The illustrations in the book show us not only what these goddesses look like but also the altars people build to three of them. Prof. Oleszkiewicz-Peralba’s publisher may not have served her well, however; although she reads and writes at least seven languages (see footnote 5, where she lists languages she’s translated herself), there are errors in idiomatic American English that require us to reread some sentences. There are also paragraphs that are so long as to be unwieldy. But there is a full and useful index and the bibliography is 15 pages long. This book deserves to be on the bookshelves of anyone interested in goddesses outside the usual Greco-Roman, Norse, and Germanic pantheons. Five gold stars!

Barbara Ardinger

Barbara Ardinger

Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is the author of Secret Lives, a new novel about crones and other magical folks, and Pagan Every Day, a unique daybook of daily meditations. Her montly blogs appear on her website and on Feminism and Religion, where she is a regular Pagan contributor. She has been writing for the Llewellyn annuals since 2004, and her work has also been published in devotionals to Isis, Athena and Brigid.
Barbara's day job is freelance editing for people who have good ideas but don’t want to embarrass themselves in print. She lives in Long Beach, California, with her two rescued Maine coon cats, Schroedinger and Heisenberg.
Barbara Ardinger