First published in "SageWoman" No 42, Summer 1998. Download a PDF
Highway 95 runs down the middle of the flat Mojave Desert valley in Nevada. Driving east from
Beatty, the tiny oasis of Cactus Springs is the first inhabitable spot for sixty miles. It was at
this site in 1993 that I dedicated a temple to the Goddess Sekhmet. I feel blessed to be able to
give a gift to a goddess who for centuries has not had temples built in her honor.
A surprising amount of information can be derived from what we know about Sekhmet. She is a very
ancient goddess; with her lion's head and woman's body, she is the opposite of the Sphinx who has a
man's head and a lion's body. Sekhmet is the goddess of four thousand names, of which only a few
hundred are known to normal humans. One story about her is that she was outraged at the evil of men
and wanted to destroy them but was tricked into submission by drinking a gift of beer which had
been colored to look like blood. This is a particularly appropriate warning for us now, because we
allow ourselves to be drugged into giving up the political and economic power that we could use to
stop the destruction of the Earth. It is good to have the temple near the Test Site, to take a
stand against the nuclear radiation that can damage our genes and destroy our fertility. The
spirits of the past are counting on us to heed Sekhmet warning, to stop sipping the drugs of lies
and allowing ourselves to be disempowered by consumerism or substance abuse. Sekhmet is "Mother
Fury," the goddess of fertility. She is the great Being in us all, the liberated planetary human
animal who will not allow the destruction of a Mother Earth. We can be strengthened by chanting her
mantra: "Sa Sekhem Sahu." Although the Temple was constructed in 1993, I feel that I honored
Sekhmet for many years before the Temple was created. I was brought up a Catholic, but early on I
believed mostly in fairies. Daddy told us stories about Robin Goodfellow and his fairy band, and my
mother encouraged the fantasy. We lived next to the bay in Corpus Christi, Texas. I always fairies
would have felt at home there.
When I was about twelve my grandfather died. He left a large inheritance to his children and
grandchildren and as a result many changes happened in my life. We moved to a bigger and less fairy
friendly house closer to town. The border between Texas and Mexico was not too far south of us, and
my parents sometimes took us down to Brownsville and Matamoros for the weekend. There were lots of
children my age and younger on the Mexican side of the border, begging. I began pretty early to ask
myself why they were poor and we were rich. Even though my parents were relatively tolerant, the
message I received was that we were rich because we were industrious and lucky, while other people
were poor because they were lazy and unlucky. It was many years before I realized that there was a
actually a transfer of wealth going on from the poor to the rich.
As a teenager I became an atheist; later when I married an Italian philosopher and moved to Italy,
my belief system turned toward humanism as the source of divine in my life. During the twenty years
that I lived there, Italy was a country of intellectual and political ferment. Always a crossroads,
it was the location of the largest Communist Party in the West as well as the Vatican. I became a
Marxist myself for a while until I came to believe that Communism, like Capitalism, is patriarchal
and that Feminism is a collective philosophy which is deeper and has more potential for positive
change than either of them.
In Italy I began to understand that our economic system actually hurts everyone. Each individual
has a place on a great wheel that creates privilege for some and hardship for others; a few profit
by the suffering of the many. The system actually molds individuals in its image, perpetuating
itself and offering rewards and punishments that motivate individuals to try to get to the top of
the wheel. It also creates ways of thinking and believing which complicate and disguise this rather
simple picture, keeping the people involved from knowing what is going on. As a person at the top
of the wheel, I resented the system and the disguise because I did not want to cause other people's
suffering. Of course the belief system which upholds the wheel discredits altruism and the desire
for a better world, making these values seem unrealistic. When I learned to validate my own values,
I realized that "reality" would have to be changed. People who are on the wheel can trade places,
or make small adjustments or improve their own attitudes, but none of this makes any real
difference unless the wheel itself is dismantled.
In 1965 my husband and I went to Egypt on a vacation. We traveled up the Nile on a boat to Luxor
and, at one point as we were exploring the temples, we came upon a statue of a goddess with a
lion's head who seemed almost forgotten, sitting on a throne at the bottom of a dark stairway.
"This is the goddess of fertility," the tour guide said. "Women who want to get pregnant should
make her a promise." I wanted to have children and had been trying without success so I silently
promised the goddess I would build her a temple, a Taj Mahal. That very month I got pregnant with
my first daughter, who was born in 1966, and I later had two more daughters. For many years I
thought about my promise. On the one hand, I thought, building a temple was something I could do;
people would want to honor the goddess of fertility. On the other hand there was no goddess
consciousness at that time as there is now.
In 1978 I got a divorce and in 1983 I finally came back to the United States to try to create
social change. While I was living in Italy I learned a lot about the effects of U.S. policy on the
rest of the world, and I decided to come home to try to address problems closer to the source of
power. Over the years I had thought a great deal about the economic "wheel" and how to change it. I
developed a theory of patriarchy and identified its alternative as a woman-led gift economy based
on the values of care and the affirmation of life. I decided to try to put my theory into practice.
I found the U.S. had changed a great deal while I had been gone. The Civil Rights, Feminist, New
Age and Women's Spirituality movements had all begun, and there were small but valiant groups
everywhere working against the nuclear arms race, against U.S. Intervention in Central America,
against militarism, and for racial, environmental and economic justice. I began to practice my
theory of giftgiving with the money I inherited from my parents and grandparents, using it to
initiate and maintain many womanled projects for social change both locally and globally. For about
ten years I also contributed to a number of other peace groups. Just as importantly, when I came
back I experienced a major personal transformation. I encountered Goddess spirituality and my
atheism disappeared. Since then I have been open to the integration of the part of myself that
loves humanity and the earth with the part of myself that loves the Goddess.
I realize now that my atheism mostly had to do with a rejection of patriarchy, and I welcome the
return into my life of nature spirits, the spirits of the dead, archetypal and elemental energies,
and the consciousness of the planet. This change in perspective allowed me to recognize Spirit as a
gift-giving or mothering presence while at the same time the legacy of my atheism and belief in
humanism, continued to make me take social change very seriously. It also let me continue to
support and love people who have other cultural legacies and belief systems. Combining earth-based
spirituality and a radical feminist theory of social change was part of the motivation that led me
to start the Foundation for a Compassionate Society in 1987.
Using money for social change is like speaking words of power. With little physical effort, the
stroke of a pen on a check can create great change. Of course it is also important to speak the
words of power, to do ceremony and ritual and act in accordance. The demonstrations, lobbying,
media work, speaking tours, consciousness raising, the gathering of women from different cultures
to share their intent and commitment for a better world, are all at some level rituals for peace.
By providing spaces where these activities can be done free or low cost, central points are created
around which the intention for change can swirl, essential connections can be made, deep energies
expressed. Throughout the years I have supported and maintained many of the rituals, but I have
also created many spaces that offer their services to the public in an ongoing way. I consider them
to be crystallized energy, physical spaces established with a radical intent change reality.
Stonehaven Ranch, the Austin Women's Peace House, Alma de Mujer, Center for Social Change, the Four
Directions Stores, the Grassroots Peace Building, WATER (Women's Access to Electronic Resources)
House, The Living Well, Casa de Colores were or are in their various ways sacred spaces, temples to
Sekhmet. These were temples to the goddess in all of us who fiercely protects life on this planet.
For a while I comforted myself with the idea of these metaphorical temples, but when I began going
to the protests at the Nuclear Test Site in Nevada in 1986, I felt the need to have concrete
representations of our love for the planet nearby. I commissioned indigenous sculptor Marsha Gómez
to create a statue of Mother Earth to place in front of the test site gates. Unfortunately the
government almost immediately confiscated Madre del Mundo. I knew almost at once that this was the
right place to build a temple to the goddess. The Earth at the Test Site is wounded underground.
You can feel it in your body as you stand at the gate of the test site looking some forty miles
across the desert at the hills behind which the testing takes place. The nuclear tests in Nevada,
which began above ground in 1951, were moved underground in 1963. They were finally stopped in 1992
but then recommenced with the so-called "sub-criticals" in 1997. Mother Earth is injured there, and
nuclear waste is being stored in her wounds. Our group has created several "wailings" at the gate
to the Test Site. We name the things we mourn for and moan and scream our grief like banshees. We
mourn for our mothers, for our daughters, for your grief, dear reader, and especially for the grief
and pain of the great Mother.
All the land where the Test Site sprawls once belonged to the Western Shoshone. In the treaty of
Ruby Valley of 1863, the government promised to give back the land to the Shoshone, but they didn't
act in accordance with their word. In fact the U.S. government has never honored any of the
treaties they have made with the native peoples of this country. The Shoshone continue to protest
there. Their main events are the Healing Global Wounds gatherings which take place twice yearly at
the gate in spring and fall. I decided that the Nevada desert was the right place to finally act in
accordance with my own nongovernmental woman's word to the Goddess Sekhmet. The site of the temple
is powerful for many reasons.
Built on the very edge of the Nevada Test site, it is also three miles west of Indian Springs,
which houses an Air force Base, and about eight miles from a Federal Prison. About forty-five miles
more traveling will get you to the suburban outskirts of Las Vegas. One gets the distinct
impression that the oppressive forces responsible for the test site are uncomfortable with
Sekhmet's proximity. With seeming ill-will, anti-tank helicopters called "wart hogs" and F111 jets
fly low over Cactus Springs on their practice flights, momentarily disturbing the silence. You can
watch them buzz the tiny temple which is set back from the highway about a thousand feet.
Hundred-year-old cottonwood trees dot the oasis. Sweet-smelling creosote bushes, mesquite trees and
salt cedars drink from the precious underground water. Many birds and wild animals participate in
the delicate and beautiful ecosystem.
The temple was built in 1993. Several months of construction were necessary to lay the foundation
in the shifting sand, to arrange the straw bales and cover them with stucco. I tried to employ
women whenever possible. Architect Molly Neiman took my Taj Mahal idea and designed a small and
environmentally appropriate structure with simple lines. Pamela Overeynder and Jody Dodd managed
the site, while a group (called CHAOS) of young peace activists, mostly women, did the actual
construction. Later a dome made of seven interlocking copper hoops was made by Richard Cottrell,
and four turrets were constructed by ceramist Sharon Dryflower. The temple houses a statue of
Sekhmet made by Marsha Gómez, and facing her is the Madre del Mundo statue that we originally
placed at the test site in 1987. Smaller statues of goddesses of many cultures adorn the walls.
The temple is small and open to the weather, with four large arches opening on the four directions,
yet inside there is a sense of spaciousness and protection. Gifts of fresh flowers, feathers,
crystals, incense, poems and pictures of loved ones from the visitors, pilgrims and activists are
placed at the feet of the goddesses. The goddess has called wonderful women to maintain the space
and create ritual there, while I continue my life in Texas. The first caregiver was Cynthia
Burkhardt who began watching over the temple in 1993 and who lived in a teepee on the land. The
next year, when Cynthia decided to leave, crone witch Patricia Pearlman offered to step in and has
been the priestess of the temple ever since. Patricia provides a full Wiccan calendar of events
honoring the Wheel of the Year, with eight Sabbats, and thirteen full and thirteen new moons. In
addition, she performs all rites of passage plus a variety of healing and settling rituals as the
need arises, and a children's hour with stories and teachings from different cultures has recently
been introduced. Many solitaries come to the temple, which is always open to the public. Other
pagan groups from near and far occasionally ask Patricia's permission to hold rituals there. The
Shoshone hold a sacred fire circle on the land lead by elder shaman Corbin Harney.(1) Activist and
environmental groups use the land for meetings and the temple for meditation. The anti-nuclear
Council of Women meets on the land in the spring before the Healing Global Wounds gathering. Peace
marchers organized by the Shundahai network and the Nevada Desert Experience stop and rest on their
way to the test site.
The temple holds its ground with Patricia's and the Shoshone's help in the midst of many negative
energies. Like the land herself, the temple's energies remain positive, delicate, down to earth,
and sane. Patricia says, "People find the temple when they are ready, they come from all over." She
welcomes everyone and she adds, "The only thing I expect them to pay is respect." After the rituals
there are potluck feasts, conversation, singing and drumming. Recently I have rented two trailer
houses on the land from the Shoshone. Patricia and her husband Al live in one while the other is
open to women guests of the temple. Patricia feels bonded with Sekhmet and that they "walk in each
other." She feels Sekhmet is sensitive, amorous, playful, sensuous, and beautiful. She is also
strong, a no-nonsense goddess. She is creator and destroyer, the mother of all and the gardener
weeding the garden. Other goddesses correspond to some of her thousands of unknown names. People
who have difficulty with abstractions can relate energies to her image, to the lion, the fire and
the cow (her Hathor aspect). In Sekhmet, it is said, the Creator decided to incarnate as a lion to
experience what she had made, like a woman eating a piece of the pie she has baked.
Recently the temple has been threatened by the proposal of a commercial mining company to build a
pit for mining sand and gravel nearby. Many people have written to the Bureau of Land Management to
protest this initiative; if you, dear reader, are among them, we thank you for your letters. The
BLM is now considering whether to grant the company a lease. To learn more about this crisis, or if
you want to visit the temple, you can contact Patricia at 702-879-3263 or email her the address
I believe that human spirituality is actually based on the gift economy of Mother Earth and I
believe that Patricia is succeeding in practicing the gift economy in alignment with that Way. I am
trying to promote gift-giving at other levels too, in woman-led alternatives to patriarchal
capitalism. I am happy to find myself in agreement with Patricia in believing that life is not so
much a school as an experience of giving and receiving, not a series of moments of paying back but
an opportunity to take risks and create change. Blessed Be!
Note: (1) I gave the land back to the Shoshone to whom it originally belonged, in a ceremony for
the commemoration of the 500 years of oppression and colonization of the Americas in 1992. Email:
Patricia Pearlman - firstname.lastname@example.org, website: sekhmettemple.com.