[Interview by journalist Zora Burden, special to The Wild Hunt]
Penny Slinger is a British born, multi-media artist known best for her esoteric, surrealist, provocative photographic collage work focusing on spiritual alchemy, the sacred feminine, and female psyche. In part one of our interview, journalist Zora Burden spoke with Slinger about her beginnings, her inspirations, and the early days of her personal and creative exploration. In part two, Slinger discusses spiritual alchemy, sexuality, the Goddess Temple, and her well-known Dakini Oracle projects.
Zora Burden: In your work, you address the subject matter of bi-sexuality and embracing the alchemical concepts of uniting the masculine and feminine within oneself. Do you see a connection between bi-sexuality and the integration of the psyche through spiritual alchemy?
Penny Slinger: For a number of years, I tried to manifest what I conceived of as being the perfect relationship dynamic for my nature. However, I never really succeeded. I had brief tastes of it, but nothing truly sustainable. It is hard to achieve in this culture and with the power plays that exist in the male/female interface. What I wanted was to have a relationship with a man and a woman, where we all loved each other equally and the energy could flow freely between the three of us. As far as magical formulas exist, I feel the power of three is so amazingly dynamic and full of limitless potential. I love and appreciate women. I have always had women as muses, and I love men.
I felt that if we could get beyond ego, competition and the normal dyad, we could enter realms of pure and exquisite vibration. But it’s hard to achieve. We are so insecure in our sense of self. Men are so addicted to holding the reins of power that this virgin territory can feel unnerving and unnavigable. The only times it seemed to work, if just for a fleeting moment, was when the two women were the primary relationship and bond, and the man was introduced by mutual choice. But to have a sustainable three-way dynamic was beyond my ability to sustain, at least with all the inherited imprinting our flesh is heir to, the social conventions that lock us down.
So although my ideal was not able to be fully manifested in my life, I did keep trying, despite the hurt and fall out. I have always attempted to swim to those further shores in the expression of my art. I have attempted to give form to the male and female sides of myself all my life and enjoy the exchange, both the duality and the reconciliation in union. I have never felt that art and life should be separate functions, so I have tried to play out and integrate it all in ‘my life as art’. My failures are as relevant as my successes, for they all have taken the courage required to put myself on the line, use myself as my own guinea pig in the laboratory of life and the test tube of my own body. I have experimented and I have calibrated the results. I may not have come up with the workable solutions I desired to create new blueprints, but I have held the vision of their possibility and worked towards creating openings in consciousness for them to become realities. I hope we can evolve towards it. Suppressing one’s inner androgyny is just as damaging to men as much as for women, as they can’t really be open to their feminine sides.
I think about the Divine Feminine coming in is not just to do with women, it’s about men being able to own those qualities in their hearts too. Anyone who is involved in an act of creativity or an act of alchemy, you know alchemy is the joining of the sun and the moon, fire and water, the mother and father, the union of the opposites, all magical acts and all creative acts come out of the union and fusion of these. All of these acts are about recognizing the male and female within. We all have all these qualities.
With this gender fluidity, certainly many artists and creative people understand and recognize much more in themselves than the normal male and female in society. This is super important for our evolution into the next level of humanity to be honest. Certainly in my life, I have explored the nature of the self in many different ways. It’s so key not to be stuck in these stereotypes of role playing and to be able to shift out of those boxes and into some understanding of the nature of self, which includes all of it, it’s the appreciation of everything. We shut ourselves down by our own perceptions of what is socially acceptable and what a man or woman should do, we’re only living a small part of our full potential and we could free ourselves from gender specific roles.
ZB: Will you talk about the sacredness of sexuality and eroticism that is reflected in your art? How are you trying to convey in your art that all sexuality is sacred, not just in a ritual context?
PS: The ritual space is the mindset, the cave of the heart and the way consciousness views all phenomena. Once we reset our way of viewing these things, the whole landscape shifts. Either nothing is sacred or it all is. This is the shift in perspective the Goddess wants to bring now to humanity, to reprogram our warped perspectives that have been instilled for aeons and separate mind from body, spirit from matter. The Goddess offers us an embodied spirituality, one where we can own and celebrate all our sensations as part of Her Divine palette, and begin to live own our bliss. It is our natural birthright and the ecstasy that flesh is heir to is our way of experiencing the Divine play of Goddesses and Gods. It is our way to touch the hem of paradise.How these marvels got to be designated as shameful, sinful, and profane is a crime against nature and the ecstatic state of being. We have been trapped in a dense materiality by these precepts and robbed of our ability to touch the skies and live in a world of magic and unbridled potential. It’s time to reclaim our sovereignty and our right to divine resonance if we are to have a future in this Eden called earth. When I co-wrote and illustrated, with over 600 drawings, the Sexual Secrets, The Alchemy of Ecstasy in the late 1970s, it was with the intention of sharing an enlightened and liberated view of the field of eroticism and sexuality. I wanted to share my discovery and revelation of a well-established spiritual path, which was inclusive of all this rather than exclusive. It was such an amazing and freeing revelation for me, so I wanted to pass it on. My own inner intuitions now had context and community. I felt confirmed and connected and wanted others to know there was a path for them out of the imposed tunnels of guilt and shame. A shining path.
My collage series, published as Mountain Ecstasy in 1978, was the celebration of this revelation in collage art. Out of the dark confines of the house and into the wide open vistas of mountain-scapes, where everything was making love to everything in an orgy of being and the bliss of transcendence. All lines of separation were blurred and the black and white palette of my previous work irradiated with full spectrum technicolor dreams. Each image was a ritual space of tantric delights. Anything and everything was possible and it was all super juicy and enticingly exotic. My travels to India, Nepal, and Thailand informed the palette and texture of this collage series. Gone were the personal images as I found myself extended into the rapture of everything.
ZB: What was the process behind the creation of your Secret/Tantric Dakini Oracle deck? Will you talk about the healing aspect of Tantric practices and how this affects creativity?
PS: Getting familiarity with the energy system that exists within the physical body, i.e. the subtle body of Tantra, reveals that all our centers are connected , from the base, the sexual center to the crown, the top of the head, the fontanel. In Tantric practice, energy is encouraged to flow, to ascend, from the base to the crown. In the base it is raw sexual energy, in the crown it is transformed into transcendence, liberation and pure inspiration, having been informed by all the centers it passes through on the way. In the crown, the energy is visualized as uniting with itself as Shiva and Shakti, the divine male and female principles.
The nectar of their union drips down and collects in the lotus of the heart, as distilled wisdom. The force that activates this ascent is known as Kundalini. She is everyone’s own personal inner Goddess, visualized as a coiled serpent. Erotic arousal is a key way to awaken her and encourage her energy to enter the central channel of the subtle body for ascent. If there are knots or blockages which prevent this clear ascent, then her energetic journey is inhibited. These knots can be the result of psychological complexes, traumas, etc. Tantric healing practices help dissolve these blocks, loose these knots, thereby enabling the clear passage of this subtle life force. The freer it is to flow, the more easily we can access all our creative juice. So this, in a nutshell, is the heart of Tantric healing practice.
As regards The Secret Dakini Oracle, when I got together with Nik Douglas in the mid-1970s, he showed me photographs he took of 64 Yogini Temples in Orissa, India, that had recently been excavated and which he had made a pilgrimage to go and see. I was immediately spellbound. They were the most exciting works of art and spirit I felt I had ever seen. The 64 forms of the Divine Feminine were sculpted in niches around the inner circumference of a circular enclosure, open to the air, like a mothership. They were so compellingly surreal, some with animal and bird heads, some beautifully buxom and others emaciated and raw, all holding magical implements and straddling fantastic vehicles. I fell in love. At the moment I saw them, I knew I must make a version of what I saw for our culture and time.
I have always loved the Tarot and oracles in general, but I disliked the doom and gloom that came with reverse readings and the like. I wanted an oracle that would give tools for transformation without the fatalistic overlay. So soon after getting together with Nik, he and I and his girlfriend Meryl started playing around using my collage techniques to create cards that we could use for divination. These were basically energy glyphs and I would do intuitive readings for us and for other people, reading off the energy embedded in the cards. We decided to make 64 of them, like the 64 Yoginis. Nik said the original Tarot derived from this system and only later became more complex and hierarchical.
The cards worked so well, even with people who were skeptical, as they always seemed to reveal some hidden but undeniable truth, that we decided to try and get them published. We contacted the biggest manufacturer of Tarot cards in the world, US Games and Systems in New York and, by a miracle, managed to set up a meeting. The reading I did for the owner sealed the deal and he asked us to write a book to accompany the cards. The images just naturally fell into place in alignment with the major arcana and into four suits, which we attributed to the 4 elements but did not go with the hierarchy of suits as in the traditional Tarot. We added a trilogy of past, present and future cards. I wrote intuitively about each card in a stream of consciousness and Nik added information on numerology and other relevant transmissions. I then created, with collage and paint, two charts for the cards to lay out on, the Tree of Life, which contained a version of the subtle body, and the Map of the Universe for astrologically based readings.
The deck was published as The Secret Dakini Oracle in the late 1970s and republished later as The Tantric Dakini Oracle. From all spiritual paths I have encountered, Tantra is the most all-inclusive, the most forgiving, the least prone to dogma and dictum. That is one of the reasons I love it and consider it the supreme path. It is the best suited for the evolution of our times so I shudder when I feel it is being promoted as ‘the religion of sex’ which is so reductionist and downgrades it’s potential to be the way we can make all we are, all we do, part of our spiritual path to liberation.
ZB: Will you talk about the creation of the online Dakini Oracle?
PS: The Yogini Temples still inhabited my vision field and psychic spaces over the years. I felt compelled to create an even deeper version of these Goddess Temples, one where the energies of the Yoginis/Dakinis would be fully personified and where there would be a standalone oracular system, not one related to the Tarot. I meditated for a long time on the nature of the system, the forms of the Divine Feminine that would be most relevant for a global community and for our current times.
I decided to break all rules and mix all kinds of magical, elemental, and spiritual beings in my circle. I wanted to dissolve previously established spiritual hierarchies. I started actually manifesting the archetypes, shooting them in my studio at the beginning of this century. I started by using myself as the model, then brought in over 50 women over the years to embody the various archetypes. I wanted this to be a ‘transferable system’, a tangible way to commune with these rarified energy fields of feminine wisdom. I thought of this system as a Goddess Temple for our times and in that tried to take all the divine feminine energies that I felt were most relevant to now, so that it didn’t just stay rooted in Indian culture, but drew from all the archetypes that had existed throughout time. I brought them together into this circle of the Divine Feminine and I see them all completely as an extension of myself. All these, I see as me but each a different phase and different quality.
At first I thought I could embody all the 64 myself. But my practice was about creating the circle of the feminine, to bring women together and for people to realize that we don’t need intermediaries or priests to stand between us and the divine. If we put our limited egos out of the way, we can invite those divine energies into ourselves – anyone can bring that into their being. I wanted to take all different kinds of women and to show all the different paths and cultures as aspects of the one. That was part of the discipline, that we could bring together all these women into the studio and go through the process of transformation into becoming as much of a divine being as possible, aided by body painting, symbolic ornaments and the props. We would then make the prayer of evocation and invocation to invite that divine energy to come into this vessel that we had created in Her honor and to embody Herself in that for our ritual. Every time we would feel it, we would start crying and shaking, all of us felt that energy came in. It was a divine mirror that we were trying to create to embody and show that reality, the tangible ways we can bring those energies down, to own them and feel them and resonate with them.
I completed the work and put the Oracle online. I don’t really feel as though I masterminded this work. I feel the Dakinis themselves created it through me, as their mission statement is to awaken and liberate all sentient beings. An important distinction between the work that I do and other forms of ritual, is in how one relates to spirit and spiritual entities. There are things in the invocation credo that talks about binding spirits and bringing them in to do the work. I don’t believe in any binding, in binding spirits, I only believe in inviting and in collaboration. That you create such a resonate and inviting atmosphere, so that being, that entity, wants to come in and cooperate and participate of their own free will. Free will is so key through all the realms. That is truly to me the Goddess path, that of free will and acknowledging and giving that to all and every being, without distinction. That was the divine experiment in the 64 Dakini Oracle manifestation.
All of the women involved came and made an offering to the Divine, with no financial remuneration. I’m very proud to have been able to do that. There were so many archetypes embodied, though I may connect more deeply to say Isis or Kali or Alchemica, all of them are a part of me, my multi-dimensional self, as they are to the potential in all of us. When I had the revelation of the Tantra exhibition back in the early ‘70s, I recognized all this and saw it as the next stage from surrealism. The symbolism of surrealism is all there but now it was describing not the subconscious but the super-conscious. It was a bridge between those realms. With my book Sexual Secrets – the Alchemy of Ecstasy, I wanted people to know sexuality is sacred and that sexuality is the doorway in and if we don’t integrate our sexuality and own it as part of our sacred selves, it will block our flow of energy, which is the energy we need for liberation. Tantra isn’t just about sex, it’s about everything in one’s life being part of one’s spiritual practice. It’s about dissolving those veils between the sacred and the profane, between the spiritual and the material. It’s about a fully integrated spiritual path.
ZB: Which Dakinis do you feel most represent radical transformation and what is the best way to meditate on these archetypes to create and embrace the change they represent?
PS: Many of the Dakinis represent transformation as they are all about innate potential. To manifest that potential, often transformation is required. The great Oracle of the I Ching is, in fact, the Book of Changes. The cycle of the 64 Dakinis has much in common with the I Ching, but it is its own system. The I Ching portrays cycles of change around a wheel of time, one could say. It shows how abundance leads to decay, as fall follows summer and so forth.
The 64 Dakini template is more about standing waves of energy, beyond the passages of time. I chose this approach because the Dakinis are essentially etheric beings, representing Feminine Wisdom principles. In this sense, they exist as eternal vibrations, beyond the ravages of time and its cycles. They are the essential building blocks of a system built on the principles of the Divine Feminine.
Metamorpha, the butterfly Dakini, is a good choice to represent radical transformation. Throughout the kingdoms of embodied beings, I have always been fascinated by the fact that the caterpillar completely dissolves, liquefies within the pupa, the chrysalis, before emerging as the butterfly. This felt like the perfect symbol for the complete meltdown that is sometimes needed for the new self to emerge. More often than not we don’t even choose that meltdown, it is forced upon us by circumstances. Although it may feel completely devastating at the time, sometimes it is the only way that spirit knows to break down all the hard places of the old self identity, all the armor, all the resistance.
Change is hardly ever easy. We feel safe in our old ways, our established habits, even if it is just those things that are holding us back from being all that we can be, for realizing the magnificence of our soul’s purpose. So we are melted down in the forge of the Goddess, liquefied, so that we can be poured onto the new mold.
I envisioned the way to meditate on and with the energies these archetypes represent would be: first to receive and absorb the transmission conveyed in the reading, designed as an initiation into these qualities and frequencies. As the medicine bundle, what each Dakini brings is rich and full. I saw its contents being something the person receiving it would work with for a while. Nothing really casual about it. The length of time would be up to the individual but the Dakini culture offers what is needed to germinate within its new container. The image of the Dakini is like a snapshot into her sphere of influence, her Dakini realm. It is an energy glyph, imbued, through the intent put into its creation, with special qualities.(continued) I felt, ideally, the person receiving the specific Dakini in a reading could purchase a print of her and then have that image to meditate on and commune with in a process of osmosis. In the esoteric traditions, you meditate on the deity and then become one with her, dissolving the boundaries of separation. In this way, divine qualities are transferred and absorbed. The whole intent of an Oracle is that you do not choose, the Dakini chooses for you. So in consulting the Oracle, the choice is made for you as to which archetype is most relevant for you at this time. You surrender your personal will to the guidance of spirit and trust that this will provide you with the greatest opportunity for personal evolution
ZB: Will you talk about your experiences being back in the world of fine art again?
PS: My art has been something that has been a saving grace for me through many challenging situations, which is ongoing. It’s been my lifeline through it all. That’s my alchemy. That’s my salvation. Everybody has some mine of creativity within them and it takes different forms, colors, and complexions but that certainly is a heart line for our own ability to deal with the material world, especially at this time. I’m writing my memoirs of my life leading up to the time when I moved here to California. I’m hoping the documentary will come out and the memories will fill in a lot of the gaps in the film. The memoirs are very transparent. I believe in being real and candid and showing the other side of the underneath, so we’re not just putting out there for public inspection all those things that make us look good. All those things that unfortunately social media has imposed, a lot of superficiality, this grand façade for people so they can look good rather than telling it how it really is.
I think, if one is going to put up a mirror for others, which is a very important part of my work, you need to dig deeply enough into your psyche and be ruthless and truthful with what you show. Then you touch into those archetypal areas. Everybody has wounds. If you’re willing to bear those wounds and show them for what they are, open those doors to the skeletons in the closet, be prepared to look them in the face and bring them into the light of day, when you’re able to tap into the archetypal arena, you find those places of resonance, where the mirror is accurate. Not just some fanfare or distortions, but the accurate picture of the highs and the lows. Then you can create a map or a blueprint and you can show that I went into the depths and darkness but I survived.
I managed to find those tools within to rebirth myself out of those depths. That’s meaningful. We can give each other hope because we all have these dark nights of the soul. If you can show something that brings light into that dark tunnel, it can lead you out and through. You can survive. It can be a lifeline for so many others. That’s what I’m trying to do with my work and my memoirs, to give others strength where they need it.
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The two-part interview is an abridged version of a much longer conversation between Burden and Slinger. In the full interview, Slinger discusses her work in Caribbean, her childhood experiences that started her on her creative journey, more of her work with 2nd wave feminism, as well as more recent project including the upcoming documentary about her life. The interview can be read in its entirety here.