Fierce Feminine Divinities of Eurasia and Latin America

Baba Yaga, Kālī, Pombagira, and Santa Muerte

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Malgorzata Oleszkiewicz-Peralba
  • New York, NY: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , September
     2015.
     204 pages.
     $95.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781137543547.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Malgorzata Oleszkiewicz-Peralba’s Fierce Feminine Divinities of Eurasia and Latin America: Baba Yaga, Kali, Pombagira, and Santa Muerte is an impressive study that spans and connects continents, cultures, and religions through the elusive trope of the feminine divine. Based on the author’s fieldwork in many countries, the book is full of specific details and images as well as critical understanding of each of the figures she describes. It is an invaluable addition to the growing field of goddess studies, but perhaps its special contribution is toward a feminist theology of the subaltern/non-Western world.

Taking her cues on liminality from Belgian folklorist Arnold van Gennep’s 1908 book Les rites de passage and its later elaboration by Victor Turner and others, Oleszkiewicz-Peralba proceeds to frame her reading within the liminal time and space of the in-between. Given the sociological slant of the study, it appropriately positions most deities among the “Brazilian favelas, many Mexican colonias and ‘illegal-aliens’ on the Mexico-US borderlands” (94). Oleszkiewicz-Peralba argues that these threshold deities of fierce wisdom are connected to the “witch archetype,” and hold “supernatural powers of transformation” that are reemerging and merging with local entities as migratory subaltern populations traverse the globe.

Chapters are organized in two parts. In part 1 on Eurasia, we meet the Slavic Baba Yaga and the Indian Kali. Oleszkiewicz-Peralba exhumes Baba Yaga, who currently only exists in fairy tales and folktales, effectively revealing her as another incarnation of an ancient “mighty earth goddess with dominion over life, death, regeneration, time and the elements” (17). It is exciting to read about a Russian tale called “Go There I Know Not Where, Fetch That I Know Not What”; such a title reveals the mystic and transformative nature of this goddess whose very name connects her to many wise, grandmotherly, and yet fiercely transgressive figures that contain all beings in her womb. Invoking Marija Gimbutas’ work on old Europe’s bird goddesses and matrilineal cultures, Oleszkiewicz-Peralba shows Baba Yaga’s links with bird divinities and various forms of the sacred feminine. Not surprisingly, Baba Yaga is connected with the serpent and is also known as ved’ma (the one who knows), directly linking her to the Indo-European mythic realm of transformative mother goddesses who were suppressed, erased, and vilified under patriarchal religions with oppressive dualisms.

“Kali, the Ultimate Fierce Feminine” is the shortest chapter. Although Oleszkiewicz-Peralba describes Kali as “the epitome of the types of goddesses we are looking at in this book” (51), her focus is not on a comprehensive understanding of the multidimensional Kali who has intrigued Western scholars for a very long time. Oleszkiewicz-Peralba cites a few tantric texts and says, in effect, “these concepts find a concrete representation in India in the bizarre figure of Kali whose aspect and behavior are a challenge to, and the negation of orderly and controlled society” (59). She makes references to diasporic Kali, connecting her with marginalized populations who, according to her, are “desperate for supernatural help” (65).

Chapters 3 and 4 of part 2 constitute the major part of the book, and here the author creates vivid pictures of Pombagira and Santa Muerte as fierce divinities of the downtrodden. Brazil’s Pombagira, the Holy Streetwalker, is “a twentieth-century avatar of the ancient, fierce life and death goddess Queen of the Universe and her priestess representatives on earth—the sacred virgin/prostitute—that was later demonized” (70). Tracing this fascinating goddess to her African roots, Oleszkiewicz-Peralba portrays her all-encompassing presence in the syncretic environment of the Afro-Brazilian Candomble and Umbanda religions that merged with Latin Catholicism and resisted its dominance, at the same time. Pombagira, a trickster figure, is “the protector of women” and is offered liquor and cigarettes. Oleszkiewicz-Peralba makes sweeping comparisons with Greek Hermes, Scandinavian Loki, Flemish Reynard the fox, the Italian Pulcinella and Arlechino, the Native American coyote, and the Yoruba Eshu. Pombagira is “sexually independent, unsubduable, and the antithesis of a docile and maternal housewife” (75), and has innumerable forms “echoing the all-encompassing nature of the African Awon Iya Wa” (76). Pombagiras “appeared as a consequence of rapid industrialization and massive migration of marginalized individuals from rural areas as well as from abroad to large cities” (85); however, she is a unique Brazilian creation and belongs to life. Oleszkiewicz-Peralba insightfully sees her connections with various formidable mother figures, as well as the Gnostic text, “The Thunder, Perfect Mind.”

Chapter 4 introduces readers to Santa Muerte—Death the Protector—the unofficial saint of Mexico. Extensive photos give a clear sense of this figure as “a skeleton wearing a Franciscan monk’s cape” (104). Other variations include the veil and robe of a Virgin Mary, although official hierarchy denies her as part of their faith, and she merges with African orixa, Aztec deities, and Santeria. Like Pombagiras, Santa Muerte too is a product of postcolonial conditions and transnational migration, and her worshippers belong to the absolute periphery of Mexican society. She is another one of those paradoxical deities who protects her devotees from destruction in the very form of death. Since her roots are in the native soil, she too represents the interconnected realm of “death, rebirth, and the passage of time” (127).

It is perhaps no coincidence that these polyvalent female deities are resurrecting in public places and in academic representations in the postmodern world that challenges the absolutist, sexist, and racist religions which have a veneer of respectability. As Oleszkiewicz-Peralba concludes, these fierce feminine divinities “put us face to face with primordial unpredictability and wildness—the hidden dimension of reality” (141), and as the environmental crisis deepens, feminized Earth’s degraded fierce feminine divinities reveal their resilience and healing power.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Neela Bhattacharya Saxena is Professor of English and Women's Studies at Nassau Community College, Garden City, New York.

Date of Review: 
November 3, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Malgorzata Oleszkiewicz-Peralba is Associate Professor of Latin American Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, USA. Her publications include The Black Madonna in Latin America and Europe: Tradition and Transformation (2007), and Teatro popular peruano: del precolombino al siglo XX (1995), as well as numerous scholarly book chapters and articles.

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