(The Official Story, Part One)
Of all the images I have yet created, the most unexpected life has sprung from my interpretation of Melek Ta’us, the Peacock Angel, a tutelary divinity of primary importance for the Yezidi of Syria, and for the Feri culture/current of witchcraft. No icon of Him imagined in His fullness previously existed, so far as I know. Before I created my image of Melek Ta’us, there was no (Western) image of Melek Ta’us– as such– considered apart from simple images of peacocks, or cognate images like Krishna or Murrugan.
I made mine because I desired so much to know Him and because nothing at all was out there to show me who He was; my story describes the genesis and growth of this seminal image but also illustrates the importance of original encounter with the Numinous. I used what I had to go out there and find Him, without benefit of initiation or substantive lore, and returned with an image that not only fulfilled my own need but which has become a crystallizing image for many others– whether or not they judge it as “authentic!”
In San Francisco in 1991, a former lover told me of a vision that had appeared to him during a Feri initiation: the Peacock Angel, the Blue God, surrounded by rainbows– a vision of Divine Masculine beauty nowhere else to be seen. His passionate description, which focused entirely on the vision and not at all on the details of the initiation, the Feri practice, or his initiator, kindled a desire to know who this mysterious being was. From behind a thick cultural veil of shadow and secrecy I was hearing a clear note that reminded me of a home I had not known I’d lost. We separated– I moved back to Minnesota- yet the picture his words made in my mind haunted me with a splendid and urgent vagueness; I could not get this lovely and mysterious being out of my mind.
Melek Ta’us, who on one level represents the Light of Heaven descended to Earth and on another the collective Deep Self of Humanity, personifies splendor, the union of opposites, the Unseen becoming manifest in the Seen, and as a male image of the Divine was so utterly unlike what I was being handed in the Wiccan-Pagan culture of the time that my heart went out to Him immediately.
In the late 80s and early 90s the emphasis in these circles was very much THE GODDESS! and masculine divinity was mostly an afterthought. A common notion back then was that because “patriarchy” had been around so long, it was unnecessary to spend much if any time at all on cultivating or invoking the masculine image in ritual, art or worship. My impression was that He was generally summed up as the Goddess’ son and stud-boy, who was generally assumed to be heterosexual and butch, but also to sacrifice himself at a moment’s (or a year’s) notice if that was required. I was never able to relate to (stereotyped) straight male roles writ large as Gods, which is why there is not much of that to be seen in my work.
I have come to understand, especially in the last few years, that re-visioning and expanding the masculine archetype of the sacred is part of my cultural purpose. It’s worth mentioning that over the last 13 years I have sold nearly twice as many paintings (and derivatives) involving male subjects than female, even though I do both. Historically the examples of [contemporary] Goddess art out there have not been equally matched with variety in Gods, though that has begun to change in recent years. I’ll return to this topic later.
Once I knew I wanted to make contact with this mysterious being, Melek Ta’us, I set out for two years to find what I could, in word and image. I tried very hard to find ANY precedents to guide me in those pre-Internet days (1992-1994), and as the child of a university professor who had grown up a block away from an academic library, I delved as hard as I could but mostly turned up only scraps of references and academic writings, mostly 19th and early 20th century field notes about encounters with the Yezidis which typically had at most 2 or 3 sentences about this mysterious being, the secret center of their worship. And of that finger’s-width of words, most would either list the various prohibitions the Yezidi put themselves under, or brief descriptions of the sanjak (peacock votive image) but not who this Divinity– a great Angel– was, by nature or appearance, except the ever-occurring theme of the peacock.
Even before a coherent image formed of Him in my mind such that I could begin a painting, the blueness of his skin, and the intricacy of the Peacock feather teased my consciousness. If there is a Red God (of the Hunt) and a Green God (of Vegetation) then why not a Blue God? And what is He; who is He? I felt as if I were pursuing something that had been kept from me all this time.
At times like this I feel akin with ancestor memories of the shaman as hunter, spellbound in the other world by the field that contains both his creature and himself, hunting for the quarry of Spirit. The object of this hunt is not death but epiphany!
Clues from references to peacock imagery and the rainbow in occult literature ranging from Kenneth Grant to Neo-Platonism began to accrete resonances that flowed into this evolving shape. I already had a sympathy for Near and Middle Eastern art and poetry, not to mention Orientalist art and a very old acquaintance with The Thousand Nights and One Night. Connections with the magical lineages– the beings of the air (djinn) and of the fire (afrits), the angels “fallen” and the peris, and strains from haunting depictions of the passion of Iblis, the Luciferian figure of the Middle East, funneled into the shaping of this vessel-concept.
I got to the point where I made a few preliminary drawings that explored the symbolism of the peacock feather and the serpentine line on a dancing, sloe-eyed male figure. But there was no way I could find out who He was until I “crossed over” and had my own direct experience with Him. Every one of the few slivers of detail about Melek Ta’us available was gleaned by me like leavings on a harvest field, until I had enough to begin fermenting a core.
What propelled this project into full manifestation in 1994 was, first: a brief correspondence by letter with a ritualist/dancer and artist who is today the current Grandmaster of the Feri tradition. At the time she was studying intensely with Victor and Cora Anderson, the head of the Feri lineage in the United States. I asked her what she could tell me, beginning with the name Dian-Y-Glas that I had read as having to do with Melek Ta’us and here, with her permission, is quoted her relevant offering:
“With regards to Dia-na-glas, it is Welsh. It translates roughly to Blue God, or Blue One. He has many names, Malik Taus or even Krishna before the patriarchy perverted Him. He is heavily associated with peacocks. In Faeri, our relationship to God is as the Divine Twins of which Malik Taus is one. There is a song:
Lord of the Painted Fan.’
“There is a myth in which Malik Taus is central, but I have never heard it outside the inner circle, and have read it only in private Books of Shadow. So, I am reluctant to give it to you. Faerie is an ethereal realm, where things bend and curve. This information should be enough for you to begin. I’m sorry to be so mysterious, but I must respect our secrets. I hope you understand.”
(The year after I finished the painting, Anaar introduced me, when I was visiting the Bay area, to the Andersons for the first and only encounter I had with either of them. From my notes of that day I see that Victor embellished on the meaning of Melek Ta’us by honoring Him as “Freedom, the Lust of God, the King of Many Colors!”)
Then, I discovered my model!
He named himself “Kali” (pronounced “Kally”) for Sara La Kali, the Black Goddess of the Gypsies, and I first saw him as the only male member of a Minneapolis performance group called Thee Psychick Slutz ov Divine Retaliation. When I saw him move, sinuous and serpentine, yet somehow elegantly birdlike, I knew he had the right “energy” for this part: he evoked an Orientalist exoticism with a dark, smoky look and enigmatic expression. He was the perfect model for this project. I photographed him in two extensive sessions in a variety of poses meant to explore the “body language” of this yet unknown being.
One of the limitations of a still medium like painting is that interpretations of figures as sacred, or otherwise meaningful in some way, lends an extra weight of meaning to the pose that they are depicted in. As a result I’ve become quite sensitized to the presentation of what I call “emotional intelligence” in the gestures and poses of the body, which in turn feeds right back to dance, theater, and magickal gesture languages.
So of many of the vaguely Orientalist poses I had Kali pose in, eventually I had to find those that “spoke” to me of the Peacock Angel directly. This was not unlike throwing face upwards an entire deck of Tarot cards to find the ones that most radiated the sense of the reading. I sublimated my collection in stages, at first picking the ones that seemed to say “Melek Ta’us” in any way. From those, compared to each other, I looked for the ones that most embodied these mysterious traits that I would know when I saw them. At last I had a very few.
The final result comes from a composite of one image where he was raising a bar over his head (which somehow spoke to me of victory and self-sovereignty) and another where he sat easily in a lotus position, holding his hands in a “lotus” mudra, which I thought looked interesting, suggesting an echo of wings and flames– it also evokes unity, wholeness, and perfect spiritual beauty. The bar became a double torch, a reference to Lucifer the “lightbearer” and also a tacit reference to the Divine Twins, the Bird and the Snake, who appeared as well in his peacock feather wings and crown feathers, and in the serpent upwelling through his navel. (Kali had a serpent tattoo on his arm, which gave me the idea to give him glowing serpents on both sets of arms!)
And why does He have four arms in this image? I did not set out knowing that he would show more than two but Anaar’s clue about a resonance with Krishna not only sparked the association of kundalini but also recalled to me that multiple arms signify multiple powers of action or manifestation. So here one aspect of His nature is the triumphant bearing of Light as Holy Fire, with both barrels as it were, and the lotus mudra of beauty and offering. Triumphant, shining, warriorlike. Exquisite, contained, offering. How could I not love a deity so whole and complete?
(Later on, I discovered that the snake entwined around the bird, or combined with it in the form of the “feathered serpent,” stand for the unity-in-duality of the Twins, so to have repeated this unity in the body of a being who in Himself represented that unity, reinforced its overall meaning.)
Once I put these things together, the attitude of “mysterious encounter” with this regal Personality asserted itself, and I easily discovered the imaginal environment in which He was placed. A morning– or evening– sky with the “Luciferian” star, Venus, directly overhead, rolling desert dunes reflecting the liminal sky colors, the ornate carpet, and other details came forward swiftly. The union and interface of light and darkness, the coming forth of many colors made the crepuscular time seem only natural.
Robert Moore’s The Planets Within, a study of the celestial magic of Marsilio Ficino and one of the works I consulted for the symbolism of the peacock, provided a rich quote for the setting of this space:
“The god of tempering is known in the image of the peacock’s multicolored tail…an alchemical image of spring, primavera, the arrival of new life…The serene and starry sky and the shining sun are peacocks, The deep-blue firmament shining with a thousand brilliant eyes, and the sun rich with the colors of the rainbow, present the appearance of a peacock in all the splendor of its eye-bespangled feathers.”
Many things were added intuitively because they lept into my mind as I dealt with that particular section– the torc of twin rosebuds around His neck recalling again the Twins and also the immensely earthy yet ethereal erotic energy this avatar seemed to carry– the tattoo around his neck, which was inspired by a Maori design. Yet his nipples are pierced simply because the model’s were also pierced! (The right model sparks the unforeseen in evoking an image like this.) His fingertips, glowing green like new leaves, evoke the power of Spring, of creation and regeneration. This power of greenness has especial potency in desert culture, where the green of an oasis is also the color of Heaven. Rendering His angel’s wings in peacock feathers rather than just giving him a peacock tail, has proven an especially popular idea for those who have taken inspiration from this design.
Whenever I have the chance to work directly from my own model, I am always fascinated with how their human image becomes apotheosized somehow in this imaginal synthesis with spirit and art. No matter how closely the features resemble the original model, there is always something else that comes through which uses their appearance as a kind of portal. I believe that the Gods and Goddesses and other spiritual beings that I strive to render do not actually have human forms as we would know them; I think we envision them in that guise to give them a vehicle to meet us half way. That point of intersection fascinates me, endlessly.
The general consensus, worldwide, seems to be that this image was a success. If I had had any idea how famous it was going to be, I would have asked a lot more for the original painting, which sold in 2001. It’s more universally accepted by Feris than Yezidis, however; I have encountered Yezidi chat groups online arguing about its “authenticity.” Years before I got my own website started, images of my Melek Ta’us were floating around the Internet, scans from the postcards I was making at the time that included the misplaced apostrophe in the second word of the title: “T’aus” instead of “Ta’us”. (I’ve always been so embarrassed about that but Anaar assures me it’s not as big a deal as I think it is. It was a typo that escaped my notice before the print run.)
In general I’m pretty pleased with the extensive showing of this image, where I am given some credit for having created it, although because many of these extant appropriations are crude scans from postcards they are two or more generations removed from color accuracy. I have accepted the fact that until more folks are aware of the provenance of this images, these older scans are likely to remain. The ones I have a big issue with are the ones where my signature has been removed! Especially when the person who has done so has palmed it off as their own work!
As I travel around the country to sell my prints I am frequently struck with how many people respond to my Melek Ta’us– even those who have no immediate knowledge of Feri or Yezidi. He seems to speak to a powerful current for re-imagining the Divine Masculine as innately beautiful, strong, wickedly creative, powerfully erotic, yet sexually liminal. He is the only being I can think of who is– to me, anyway– simultaneously a God, a faerie, and an Angel.
(This is part one of a two-part story about this image; part two (forthcoming) will go into some detail about where this image has shown up since I created it and the effects it appears to have, worldwide. Update: It’s been a very long time since I wrote the above and “Part Two” is still “incubating”. It has been difficult to frame so many subjective reactions and aftereffects in a coherent fashion! Someday….)