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Eywa and Momoy: Nature as Shamaness in Myth and Film

Slide one: Eywa and Momoy: Nature as Shamaness in Myth and Film

Slide two: The concept of Mother Earth and Nature is so commonplace today as to have become a virtual cliché. Yet, reverence for a feminized earth has endured for thousands of years among many cultures. Nature as the Divine Feminine may be seen in contemporary stories as well, including the film Avatar. Such staying power in the collective imagination speaks to atavistic impulses that have long been expressed by indigenous cultures in their mythologies. In Avatar, Eywa was the Na’vi “Earth Mother,” who was considered their holiest deity. The California Chumash Indians, former inhabitants of the area extending from Malibu in the south to San Luis Obispo in the north, revered a deity called Momoy, who represented variously an Old Woman, the moon, and jimsonweed.

Slide three:Like Eywa, there are no known images of Momoy, and just as Momoy may be understood as a feminine triunity, so may Eywa, whose pervasive presence throughout Avatar was embodied by the strong female characterizations of the Omaticaya princess, Neytiri; her shamaness mother, Mo’at; and even the anthropologist, Grace Augustine. All three participated in Jake Sully’s initiation into the Omaticaya clan, paralleling Momoy’s triple role of shamaness-moon-entheogen in Chumash rites of passage.

Slide four: Although much has been said about the correlation between Avatar and Native American environmental ethics, the ecopsychological aspect of their relationship has been scarcely examined, if at all. Ecopsychology attempts to understand behavioral and experiential processes as they occur within the environmental constraints of animal-environment systems. By focusing on perception, action, cognition, communication, learning, development, and evolution in all species, it criticizes the inherent dualism of traditional psychology that separates people from others and the natural environment (Krippner 2002). Ecopsychologists theorize that humans are a basic part of a grander system and that the health of this system demands sustainable and mutually nurturing relationships among and between the parts and the whole. Accordingly, to be psychologically healthy, one must acknowledge that the planet is endangered and make real-world efforts to save it.
     Along this line, Theodore Roszak (1992) postulated an “ecological unconscious” as the “savage element” in humans “that rises up to meet the environmental need of the time,” providing the impetus for environmentally conscious activism (1992: 96). Such activism is seen in Avatar when the Na’vi were moved to protect their most sacred Tree of Souls against the invading Sky People. The film thus exemplified cinematically what religion historian Roger S. Gottlieb calls “religious environmentalism” (2006).
     In contrast to Jungian psychology, which posits a “collective unconscious,” ecopsychology roots psyche within the neoplatonic concept of the anima mundi (Roszak 1992, 1995; Hillman 1995, 2006). The anima mundi obtains a sense of interconnectedness not unlike Eywa’s and that which is expressed in many indigenous hunting traditions, including the Chumash, for whom Momoy may be seen as a correlate to Eywa. The realization of this interconnection and interdependence has been an essential part of shamanic tradition for at least 30,000 years and suggests that the psychological study of shamanism can play a vital role in healing the earth. This is because shamanic healing “is embedded in a place and a history, in the rhythms of climate, in the contours of a landscape where the birds and beasts have been close companions for centuries” (Roszak 1992: 76). Seen this way, shamans were the original psychotherapists.

Slide five: Shamanism could be seen in the Omaticaya high priestess or tsahìk, Mo’at. As the matriarch of the clan and, therefore, in charge of initiation into it, Mo’at attempted to “cure [Sully’s] insanity” through a ritual that would transfer consciousness permanently to his avatar. She was skeptical at first, but ultimately decided that with her daughter, Neytiri, as his guide, there might be a chance for him. She also attempted a consciousness transfer with Dr. Augustine that included group chanting, drumming, music, trance, and exhortations to the dying anthropologist to “pass through the eye of Eywa,” a significant stage of the ritual required for its success. Although entheogens were not specifically mentioned, the scene in the film depicting this ritual glowed with a magical luminescence not unlike the psychedelic visions reported by many users of them, and Neytiri may be seen pouring a liquid substance over Sully.

Slide six: Unlike other Native American tribes whose shamans were traditionally male, some, including the Chumash, were known for having female as well as transgender, or berdache, shamans. One of the shaman’s primary roles was the oversight of rites of adolescent initiation into adulthood. For the Chumash and other Native Americans like the Aztecs, whose Momoy correlate was Tonantzin, the ingestion of Datura, commonly known as jimsonweed or momoy by the Chumash, was a part of this ritual. At puberty both boys and girls participated individually in momoy-induced vision quests under the guidance of a “specialist” who prepared the potion and interpreted their visions afterwards, which may explain Mo’at’s meaning as “dreamcatcher.” These spiritual guides were well-respected because they had personally used Datura enough times—and survived—as to be considered experts in preparing the correct dosage. They also knew what to expect in the way of the hallucinations that resulted from the psychoactive component of Datura and that frequently contained images of animals, which decided a person’s “spirit guardian.” In this way, momoy-the-entheogen became associated with Old Woman Momoy-the-shamaness who presided over the ceremony. So critical to this initiation ritual was the use of momoy that an individual was not considered a true member of the clan unless he or she had taken momoy and had a designated “spirit guardian.”
     Momoy as shamaness and spiritual leader is depicted in “Momoy and the Tupnekč,” a narrative in which she adopts a foundling, raises him as a tupnekč (grandchild), initiates him into the momoy cult, teaches him to hunt, and criticizes him when he continues killing animals even though neither he nor she are meat-eaters. At one point she says to herself, “‘He has no sense—he just goes around killing!’” (Blackburn 144). When the tupnekč with the aid of Coyote kills a bear, Momoy is clearly disgusted and says, “‘Have you no sense at all? You are just killing for the sake of killing. The bear was doing no harm,’” indicating a Chumash ecoethical attitude toward hunting (147).

Slide seven: Just as there seemed to have been a “hunter’s code” for the Chumash, so did the Na’vi demonstrate a reverence for life and a desire to heal the breach provoked by its taking. For instance, when alien-cum-native Sully thanked Neytiri, an Omaticaya clan princess of the Na’vi, for saving his life by killing the ferocious viperwolf that had attacked him, she reprimanded him: “Don’t thank for this! This is sad.” She was not pleased to have taken the beast’s life for a reason other than food procurement. It thus became apparent that, as with the Chumash, needless killing and injury were forbidden on Pandora, the mythical planetary setting for Avatar.
     Neytiri’s Mother Nature quality also became apparent when she began teaching Sully’s avatar how to live as a Na’vi member. One of his first lessons was the correct way to take the life of an animal. Like many indigenous peoples who participated in rites associated with hunting, fishing, and gathering that embodied an implicit ethic of respect for other forms of life, the Na’vi performed similar rituals following animal and plant life-taking in which they “blessed” the dead and prayed: “Your spirit goes with Eywa.” In this way, the Na’vi affirmed their reverence for Eywa, their “Great Mother.” This ecological ethos may be seen not only in the Na’vi obligatory respect toward prey noted above, but in the close relationship the clans believed was possible with other species. Conversely, such respect for “mother” wisdom contrasted sharply with the apparently masculinist, nonindigenous, “sullied” society of Sully’s before being “reborn” as a member of the Na’vi. The Na’vi worship of Eywa thus resembled the ancient Greek reverence for Gaia, their Earth Mother.

Slide eight: The recognition of feminine energy as transformative energy is apparently what inspired goddess veneration. Women perform this transformation and incarnate this power in their capacity to make milk out of blood and to give birth out of their own bodies to an utterly other creature. As a fertility goddess, Gaia was also a goddess of the underworld, the realm of death. To die was to return to the receptive, generative mother. The earth was womb; burial was in the fetal position. When the world is conceived in cyclical terms, death is the prelude to rebirth. Yet, rebirth is not understood as the return of the same but as transformed consciousness. Because of this, death and new vision are closely intertwined. Gaia was the giver of dreams and omens, of the understanding of the hidden. She was the source of vision—and of lunacy, which is altered vision. She was the moonflower as well as the momoy, the giver of intoxicants as well as the intoxicant itself. In mythology, Pandora was indeed Gaia’s manifestation: the giver of all gifts, those welcomed and those not (Downing 1992).

Slide nine: Ecopsychologically, Gaia may be seen “as a dramatic image of ecological interdependence” and “as the evolutionary heritage that bonds all living things genetically and behaviorally to the biosphere,” according to Roszak (1995: 14). In this expansive view, there is “a deep, abiding connection between psyche and Gaia,” much like the interconnections among life and Eywa on Pandora (15). Eywa thus represented a Gaia-like concept of relationship: “a network of energy that flows through all living things,” as Dr. Augustine explained to the disbelieving invaders, who mocked instead the Na’vi belief system in order to justify their own reprehensible actions: “You throw a stick in the air around here and it’ll land on a sacred fern, for Christ’s sake!” snorted Parker Selfridge, the corporate sycophant in the film. “What the hell have you people been smoking out there? They’re just goddamn trees.”
     Dr. Augustine persisted, however, pointing out that an “electrochemical communication between the roots like synapses” existed on Pandora, giving the trees “more connections than the human brain,” providing a means of cultural rootedness and identity among the Na’vi that the invaders decidedly lacked. Such interconnectedness was confirmed by Sully’s bonding with the Tree of Souls that ultimately allowed Eywa to “hear” his request for help and to respond in kind. Eywa’s answer was manifested not only the legendary Giant Leonopteryx, who arrived to transport Sully-cum-Taruk Makto into battle, but by her transformation of the formerly dangerous forest creatures into helpful reinforcements against the invaders. In a telling scene, the vicious viperwolves that had once threatened Sully prior to his “rebirth” now focused instead on the alien attackers.
     Sully’s initiation therefore reflected his conversion from a contemporary western perspective into an indigenous ethos. Sully further demonstrated this transformation with his speech: “Look at the world they come from. There is no green there. They killed their Mother.” Sully’s choice of pronouns clearly confirmed his dissociation from the Sky People. As the nefarious Colonel Quaritch sneered, Sully had “gone native.” Moreover, only after Sully was “reborn” as an Omaticaya clan member did he become impassioned sufficiently to rally the Na’vi to defend Pandora. In this way his “rebirth”—his indigenization—resembled a conversion to Gottlieb’s religious environmentalism.

Slide ten: Avatar and Momoy illustrate that by embodying ecoethical worldviews, indigenous myths may inspire caring attitudes and behavior toward nature, or religious environmentalism. No one forced or even advised the formerly apathetic Sully to defend Pandora; he simply did it, as if in response to an inner directive. As explained by psychologist Lionel Corbett, “When the myth in which we live is unconscious, we are like . . . fish in water” (2001: 84). The myth “creates the atmosphere in which we live and is taken for granted. Our fundamental attitudes are then derived from it” (2001: 84). Articulated here is the innate sense of “doing the right thing” when one is guided by a mythopoietic narrative that situates ethics within a “cognitive context,” as J. Baird Callicott has observed (1994: 26).
Such a rapprochement between humans and nature is plausible, ecopsychologist James Hillman suggested, because the individual anima-soul coheres with the anima mundi-World Soul. Accordingly, any “alteration in the human psyche resonates with a change in the psyche of the world,” transforming the collective consciousness in the process (2006: 35). All of this seems to indicate that like the ancient myths that once communicated moral behavior and values, the discourse of environmental ethics will be most effective when the symbolic, non-rational language of poetry is rejoined with scientific observation in mythopoietic narratives. Hopefully, mythology will then be restored to its archaic function of providing individuals and communities with stories that give meaning to their lives and that enable their indigenization to places, thereby instilling a desire to care for the environment—including the city—and each other. And like the last “gift” in Pandora’s basket, hope may be all we have left.


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