Printed in the Fall 2018 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Gilchrist, Cherry, " Circle of Nine: A Women’s Way of Working" Quest 106:4, pg 18-22
By Cherry Gilchrist
On a cold spring day in March 1981, a small band of women gathered at the Nine Ladies stone circle in the Peak District of Derbyshire in the north of England. They had come seeking inspiration for a new vision of women’s spirituality and a common way to work together, and they had been drawn to this spot by the name of this circle.
It was a trek to get there. The site lay in wild countryside, high moorland and ancient woods, and at that time was not visited frequently. But to the women’s surprise, when they arrived, they found that the ancient circle was not empty: in the center a bunch of nine daffodils had been placed. The golden flowers blazed like a beacon—nine flowers for Nine Ladies. This seemed to be a confirmation, lighting the way forward. The daffodils set the seal on the work, which has persisted from that day to this. Out of this magical synchronicity, and this initial impulse, grew the Nine Ladies network, and the Circle of Nine.
Why is a women’s line of work needed? Perhaps I can explain this best by following our own story further. Each women’s movement has its own narrative, but the way the process unfolded here is an illustration of how such a line could develop.
The women who went to the Nine Ladies stone circle were part of an existing British network known as Saros, which pursued esoteric and philosophical work in study groups combining men and women. We ran a residential center in Buxton, Derbyshire, along with local groups in different parts of the country. Saros had its roots in Tree of Life Kabbalah and the Western mystical tradition, with the aim of reformulating old practices in order to offer new pathways for the next generations to come. There were many strands within the overall teaching program, ranging from astrology to dance movements, but we did not have a separate strand of women’s work. It became evident that there was a need for one.
As women, our particular mode of thinking, feeling, and expressing knowledge didn’t have enough room to develop and be heard. Men’s arguments tended to run along lines of relentless theorizing; women wanted to bring intuition and emotion into play. Their insights were often dismissed or swept aside in the current of enthusiastic debate. We women knew that we could offer a different kind of knowledge and that we needed a special space in which to develop it. Rather than being divisive, the fruits of any such work could be brought back into the mixed arena to enrich the general field of spiritual knowledge. It therefore seemed essential that the women should have an approach of their own.
The initial expedition to the Nine Ladies circle thus gave a coherent symbol and schema to this new line of work. I wasn’t there myself on that initial occasion, but I was already working with these women and joined the new Nine Ladies group as soon as it was founded shortly afterwards.
Our particular circle began its dance when an unseen bell was sounded, perhaps. The bell connected our group to this ancient tradition, in which women entered the Nine Ladies stone circle, admired a bunch of golden daffodils, and left inspired to start new work to honor the feminine. Something that was frozen, or suspended in time, sprang forth into life again.
The daffodils became the first symbol used by the group, and in the coming months, the Nine were formulated as individual archetypes, just as we have them today—three Queens, three Mothers, and three Ladies (see sidebar). Saros was very much a hub, and semi-independent initiatives grew within it, so that Nine Ladies could be entirely self-regulating. This was a particularly helpful setup, because it gave women the freedom to work independently as well as within mixed groups. Confidence grew, and harmony improved in the male-female study sessions.
This gave us all cause to think about the different dynamics that men and women adopt within groups, and, broadly speaking, we reached the following conclusions: Women’s work tends to be more collective, and men’s more hierarchical. Women operate more from a basis of consensus, and less from the opposition and competition favored by men. Neither way is superior to the other, and both have their pitfalls. Women may find it hard to disagree openly with one another; men may find it difficult to stop jockeying for position. A group of either sex whose aim is greater awareness will need to face these challenges and find strategies for avoiding the potential traps that gender can set for us.
Overall, I’d sum up our aims of working in a female line as these: to assert feminine ways of thinking, working, and feeling; to develop special female qualities; to receive inspiration from the divine feminine; to empower the connection between the feminine and masculine. And perhaps we should add: to recognize the spirit that transcends gender and includes both.
|The Nine Maidens stone circle at Belstone, Dartmoor, England. Painting by Robert Lee-Wade.|
As is often the way, the evolution was more organic than linear. Over the years, the Nine Ladies groups have moved on from the nine archetypes, and now work more with geometry and philosophy (see www.nineladies.org). I have always felt, however, that the rich and ancient symbolism of the nine is a line in its own right, able to provide a source of inspiration for women of all types and backgrounds, whether or not they are already involved in esoteric work. The nine can feed a hunger for a feminine spirituality, give a sense of meaning to everyday life, and adapt to changing needs in women’s lives. My own line of work here has therefore been to continue to develop the nine archetypes, revealing them as the spectrum of the feminine soul and as the life experience of everywoman. I use the Circle of Nine as the name for this line, although I have remained a member of Nine Ladies, and on many occasions our work has overlapped. Working with the Circle of Nine is a creative process: many different types of exercises can be devised, from dance to storytelling, from silent visualization to producing artwork, and particularly through ways of observing and evoking the archetypes in our everyday, individual lives.
So the Nine Ladies and the Circle of Nine have both emerged from that initial inspiration in the stone circle, but have developed in different ways. This, I suggest, emphasizes the energy of that first impulse, which could support more than one life form—produce more than one child, as it were. Towards the end of the article I’ll say more about the very ancient tradition from which it has sprung.
But before that, just to stress the nonlinear development of such lines of work, another element of the story deserves to be told. When we try to trace the origins of a new initiative for what we could loosely call esoteric work—that is, of a spiritual nature, but not belonging to conventional religion— it is often difficult to tell its story chronologically and to fix times and dates in a literal, logical order. Sometimes even our own memories play us false; in this case, I had to go back to my own notebooks to verify the sequence. But perhaps it’s not surprising, as the quality of time itself is different when we touch on the level of existence from whence such impulses arise.
Not long after the first Nine Ladies group took shape, I experienced a powerful vision of White Ladies—figures of women clothed in white who came to me like emissaries from a world beyond. It was perhaps no coincidence that they came while I was taking part in a Saros study session about angelic hierarchies. These White Ladies certainly seemed to be of another order altogether, beyond our normal comprehension. And they came, I felt, to announce something of importance. Their presence moved me to tears, and I sensed that they arrived because of our need, and maybe the need of women in general, to find a new way forward. I’ve since learned that White Ladies appear as bringers of news in British myth and folklore. Here they are considered to be spirits, something between fairies and ghosts, who arrive at times of great need. (See K.M. Briggs, The Fairies in Tradition and Literature, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967.)
It would be logical to assume that the White Ladies preceded the daffodils in the circle, so that the story moved on from the experience of the divine feminine to a more particular manifestation. But this was not the case, as my records prove. Here is the possible reason: A new line of work first requires effort and input from us before it can be enlivened or fertilized. Maybe a more exalted energy will enter if we set up the framework in a suitable way, in accordance with higher principles. Once this schema is in place, a blessing, visitation, epiphany, or inspiration may descend into our work if there is a true need. Need is related to necessity, which in itself is beyond emotion and often has a quiet voice—for example, when you see clearly, all of a sudden, what you have to do to resolve a situation—but I think that if it is voiced with a genuine cry from the heart, it is more likely to resonate with unseen forces, and there will be a response. It requires not sentiment, but true emotion, to activate a response.
I’ve mentioned some of the key differences between women’s and men’s approaches to group work. These are not blanket divisions but tendencies. Often the differences come down to practicalities. Women’s spiritual work has to be fluid and adaptable to changing conditions. On a much earlier course, the first residential one that was run by Saros, we brought along our children. They ranged from babies through wayward toddlers to independent-minded seven-year-olds. Although child care was provided during the work sessions, we took back parental responsibility in the breaks and from teatime onwards; we also had to be ready to intervene in any crisis. It was a disciplined course, and we were expected to switch between roles, bringing our full attention to the periods of study and discussion, plus fitting in private meditation at least once a day. At one point, as the pressure mounted, our mentor said thoughtfully, “The women are working much harder than the men.” Heads were cocked, eyebrows raised. He explained: “They’re the ones dealing with the children as well as their work on the course. They have to span both worlds, and so they’re getting further.” Yes, fathers were there too, but the reality was that babies had to be nursed, and younger children usually ran to their mothers for comfort. The fathers were able to turn their attention away from child care much more freely and focus almost exclusively on the work we were doing.
However much coparenting takes place, women are still more likely to be the ones who experience the most acute emotional tugs from their children and who will be giving the most in terms of time and attention. At other stages of life, too, women tend to be the carers, keeping an eye on the well-being of others in whatever context, and the ones who keep the home running. As women, we cannot totally separate ourselves from our human responsibilities. This can mean that women who wish to work in a spiritual line will have to make some decisions about when and how they can set aside “sacred time” and make responsible choices about offloading their usual duties for a while. Women working in this way, as our mentor pointed out, may thus have a harder time of it, but it can also be an opportunity to go further.
By the same token, it’s appropriate for women to work in spiritual contexts in a way that combines the everyday with the mythic. We have to span the whole range from sitting in silent communion with the archetypes to wiping kids’ snotty noses. And this brings unique opportunities to cover a wide spectrum of meaning, which includes emotional, physical and spiritual realities.
The Circle of Nine is an assembly of archetypes, not of goddesses. Each archetype may be illustrated by goddesses, but because it is nondenominational and does not adhere to any one specific culture, the Circle needs to be broadly based and understood in a wide context. Archetypes can be perceived as particular forces, or aspects of the universal feminine soul, who can also manifest in our own lives, sometimes in very humdrum ways. They do not dominate or command, or need placating or elevating. We may feel reverence, even awe, in their presence, but they are not for worshipping, because they are a part of each woman’s soul, and worship is usually for something distinctly “other.” It is a liberating approach. The concept of archetypes, to be sure, is popular at present, but it stretches back to the philosophy of Plato and serves us very well as a way of defining and personifying presences and energies.
Having considered the term, let’s look at the realities of the situation. As explained, a new form of spiritual work for women needs to be grounded in everyday life, but also open to the realms of archetype and myth. The groups and individuals that have worked with the Nine have been intent on bridging this spectrum. Taking the original template of nine—a very ancient one, as I am about to relate—means that each archetype can be differentiated, evoked as a spiritual presence, and found in the tasks and roles that women take on in their lives. The Weaving Mother, for instance, can relate to all the threads that a woman weaves in the complexity of her life—multitasking to keep the family going, plying her skills at work, or even scheming cleverly to overcome obstacles (women tend to win by their adeptness rather than by outright strength). The Queen of the Night, on the other hand, in one of her guises represents the wilder, freer female self, which may only be able to flourish when the restraints of the day are lifted. Once the archetypes are known intellectually, emotionally, and practically, examples of their presence multiply. Every new woman arriving in the Circle of Nine can add to that cornucopia from her own experiences and explorations.
It is very rare to begin any kind of esoteric work that doesn’t connect to a preexisting form of a spiritual tradition. So it has proved with the Circle of Nine. At the beginning, although we knew of the Nine Ladies stone circle, and a few instances of the Nine in historical accounts, it was later that I learned how widespread and ancient this tradition of nine women is. With the benefit of infinitely better Internet research facilities, I’ve discovered that our Circle of Nine, this company of nine archetypes, is a particular flowering of a strong tradition of nine magical women, of women’s votive groups, which goes back to prehistory. It is found over a wide geographical area, covering Europe from Greece to Scandinavia and stretching as far afield as Siberia. Possibly it extends worldwide, as there are scattered examples from Africa and South America.
The women are called variously the Nine Maidens, Nine Sisters, Nine Ladies, Nine Daughters, or Nine Mothers. The tradition is mysterious in that we don’t know for sure how it arose or what underlying mythology it was based on. Sometimes the nine are seen as having a historical existence, sometimes a purely mythic one. Nine was not always their literal number. Stone circles named for them, for instance, usually have more than nine stones, but this in itself emphasizes the importance of the nine as a sacred and magical number for the feminine. It is often seen as an expression of three times three, in relation to old concepts of the Triple Goddess, who may often be associated with the changing phases of the moon. This may have descended directly into folk magic, where nine is frequently invoked to bind a spell. As William Bottrell, the nineteenth-century Cornish folklorist, said: “You know everybody hereabouts uses nine in all their charms and many other matters.”
Legend and history thus suggest that this is an ancient, widespread template for a company of nine women engaged in (or representing) sacred work. Each company has its own identity, and groups range from those with a historical presence to those who exist in myth or folklore or are commemorated in the symbolic contours of the landscape. There are stone circles and rows, plus wells, hills, chapels, and lakes associated with the nine. Groups usually seem to have a specific task or function, which range widely, from channeling the inspired wisdom of a god or goddess, through healing and serving others, to simply dancing for joy. Overall the job of the nine is to help others, work magic, or see into the realms of the future. One such company, who lived on an island off the coast of Brittany in ancient times, is described by the Roman geographer Pomponius Mela. He tells us that they tended an oracle of a Gallic god, living “holy in perpetual virginity” and “endowed with singular powers.” When navigators came seeking counsel, the priestesses would—if so minded—predict the future, charm the winds and seas, and heal the most serious wounds and diseases.
Folklore has shaped many of the stories about circles of nine women over the years; some are remembered as giddy maidens or malevolent witches, but even here there is the sense of nine women partaking of energy from a sacred source. Dancers in a stone circle, for instance, petrified for their impertinence, may come to life again in a magical way. Near where I live, in Devon, there is a stone circle on Dartmoor known as the Nine Maidens; they are said to be dancers frozen in time who come to life at noon and dance in their ancient circle again every day.
One of the joys of this kind of work is that it continues to produce surprises. It is not bound by the linear time that rules most aspects of our lives. So in taking the work of the Circle of Nine further, I have discovered more marvels. Whatever special impulse was transmitted to us that day at the stone circle, it is still unfolding and opening up new dimensions. “A woman’s work is never done” may be a doleful saying in a domestic context. Apply it to women’s spiritual work, however, and it has a shining truth which inspires us to go further along the path.
Cherry Gilchrist is the author of a number of books on spiritual and cultural traditions, including Tarot Triumphs, Russian Magic, and (with Gila Zur) The Tree of Life Oracle. Her article “Meeting the Shaman in Siberia” appeared in Quest, winter 2017. A new and revised edition of her book The Circle of Nine: An Archetypal Journey to Awaken the Divine Feminine Within will be published by Red Wheel Weiser in September 2018.
The Circle of Nine refers specifically to the nine archetypes that were formulated following the encounter in the Nine Ladies stone circle. It arose from the inspiration of the nine daffodils placed there, and the concept of nine female figures standing in the circle. The nine archetypes are named
The Lady of Light
The Great Mother
The Queen of Beauty
The Lady of the Hearth
The Just Mother
The Queen of the Night
The Lady of the Dance
The Weaving Mother
The Queen of the Earth
These are formed from the triple root of Queens, Mothers, and Ladies, a specific definition of the ancient notion of the triple feminine. This is found across time and place as a triple goddess, often associated with the phases of the moon, and is often too a way of looking at the three main stages of women’s lives, as maiden, mother and crone. Perhaps more appropriate terms for our age are girl, mother or mature woman, and grandmother or elder. In this schema, though, the trio of Queen, Mother, and Lady denotes different aspects of womanhood, rather than different ages. These are largely self-explanatory, but in brief, the Queens are poised, regal, and in rightful possession of their power; the Mothers are nurturing, encompassing, and have endurance; and the Ladies are gracious, fluid and captivating.
The specific nine archetypes in the Circle of Nine are a unique formulation which grew out of this triplicity. Their relevance to women’s lives today is emphasized, as well as their resonance in a spiritual and mythic dimension. You can find full studies of them in my book The Circle of Nine, along with advice on how to work with them either as an individual or in a group. There is also a dedicated website at www.circleofnine.org with thumbnail studies and stories of the nine, and further suggestions for work.