One of the Nommo, androgynous water spirit and mythic ancestor of
the Dogon people, Africa
Salmon school up
in small bays in the inlet, waiting for a rain. They have traveled
halfway around the world since they were born in the gravel
four-hundred miles upriver. Now they are back at the river mouth,
and as soon as the rain comes they begin their incredible journey.
Fighting against the current, they climb waterfalls and hurl
themselves over rocks. Riding backeddies, resting in deep wells,
exhausted and torn to shreds, they swim to their spawning ground.
Many die. Predators gather at the river, feasting
bounteously. But all who live keep swimming against the current,
Gay and lesbian people are called to a journey like this.
Like the salmon, we must go home, even when home seems impossible.
Drawn irrevocably by our inner compass, listening only to our inmost
images and instincts, we undertake this journey, almost hopeless
against all odds. On the way, we need courage, faith, resilience,
and plenty of luck. So many are destroyed. Yet age after age,
perversely, we come home. We die, we are murdered, and yet we
continually reconstitute the web of life. Swimming upstream, we are
nevertheless the spirit of the river, its most telling inhabitant.
Without our spawn, skeletons and skins, without our brilliant colors
and our impossible journey, the river is emptied of magic and
meaning. Like a salmon, or a shaman, each queer person leaves the
realm of common sense to undertake a tortuous quest and a
transformation: the journey with ecstasy – or Death – at its end
and a return to life as its re-beginning. We come back with gifts.
Perhaps we carry the capacity to speak with Death and the afterlife,
with animal spirits and with gods.
Hilary Stewart describes the “First Salmon Ceremony” by
which the Salish people at Saanich welcomed the salmon returning to
the river. Children all carried a salmon, holding the dorsal fin in
their teeth. They stroked and soothed the fish as they traveled in a
procession up from the water to the cooking fire, while the
Ritualist sang thanks to the salmon.[i]
Severed from nature and the
mythic dimensions of being, contemporary society would have it that
salmon comes in tins. Without a sense of nature’s generosity and
power, people can grow materialistic and cynical. Even their dreams
could stay individualistic and small – if it were not for the
existence of gay and lesbian people. We are the ones who dare depart
the safe confines of a predictable life, and venture into a
dangerous unknown. Our goal cannot be personal aggrandizement or
social approval. We each move instead to grasp and live the fabulous
wonder of an inborn self. Becoming queer means harkening to the gods’
will, despite doubt and fear, in the face of innumerable obstacles.
We swim upstream, impossible distances, against the odds, with only
our inmost impulses to guide us. The incredible journey – to
self-knowledge, to love and community – stands in drastic contrast
to souls sunk in cynicism, rotting with surfeit, cowering in fear of
Chiron with Achilles, wall
painting, Ancient Greece.
In a society without
conscious myths, rites and sacraments to conjure the sacred and
guide the soul to its calling, queer identity carries enormous
power. Gays and lesbians live the story of the hero. We each embody
the archetypal pattern of the singular individual who, with
improbable courage, finds and creates a home in a hostile world.
There is an essential generosity, a call to community, in our story.
Tyranny – including the tyranny of what is ordinary, expected,
possible, and easy – overtakes any place without heroes to inspire
Lesbians and gays are icons to all who would dare to risk despair
for the sake of freedom. We make a place in the world for mythic
struggle and transformation, when we endure punishment for the dream
of love. ▼
Stewart, 1977, (168).
This idea originates with Rollo May, 1991.