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The Ivory Tower

Posted by on in Paths Blogs


It used to be my kid’s room, on an upper floor, the last one to be vacated. I moved in then, and my books and icons, idols and altars seemed to merge happily with the stuffed animals and old toys. Now I’m the one who plays and dreams here, reading about ancient religion and history, writing about how trees and stars, elements and animals, all bear their own deeper meanings, all play their part in the poem of the world.


One day I called this place “my ivory tower” and the words rang a bell of joy in me, calling up my love of academia, footnotes and learning, gothic arches and leather-bound tomes — the ivory tower as splendid isolation from the practical cares that are clearly not my forte. But I also felt there was more to it than that.


The term’s origins are in biblical erotica and medieval reverence: the Song of Solomon’s beloved is compared to a “tower of ivory” and that in turn became a description of the Virgin Mary. Untouchable, untouched, precious, hidden, desired…Mary is the princess in the tower, visited not by Prince Charming, but by the Angel Gabriel and the Holy Spirit. In one medieval book of hours she is seen, ivory tower in the background, charming a wild unicorn to lay his head in her lap—an allegory of how her purity attracted the deity to her womb. Unlike Rapunzel, she is not waiting to be rescued but complete within herself, “a garden enclosed” but fertile, able to nurture life without losing her independence or integrity.


The ivory tower of my imagination is a refuge, a favourite place, a womb of creativity. An aerie, a watchtower, an observatory — aspiring to the freedom of the sky, rooted in the earth, safe from attack or distraction. Enclosed but open to a wide view, a jumping off point for the eyes and the mind. A place to watch storms and tide roll in, the sun, moon and stars wheel in their rounds. A place to weave my words and show the magic in the world.


But maybe it’s also a lightning rod. In Tarot, the sixteenth card shows a tower whose top is being decapitated by a bolt, its unlucky inhabitants tossed outward, forcibly evicted. This warns me that some divine visitations are shocking, painful, upending our cherished notions, ripping the roof off and letting the wind and water wash in. 


Yet the bolt need not be punishment. It could be inspiration or catharsis: a cleansing that the tower reaches for, despite its violence. The Zoroastrian Towers of Silence are similarly open at the top, to let the dead be stripped clean by vultures and weather, leaving the sacred elements untainted. Leaving space for new life.


My ivory tower. Tower of Babel or steeple? Presumption or aspiration? Am I the princess in the tower…or the madwoman in the attic? I may wait for Zeus’s shower of gold like Danae in her tower of brass. I may try to spin straw into gold like the girl in “Rumpelstiltskin”—but no one else put me here and I don’t want to be rescued. 

In my dreams I’m the lighthouse keeper, scanning the distance for a sign, sending out a light to souls who wander on the open sea, lonely and unknown. Guiding them to harbour, I would find myself as well. For it’s in my tower that my secret self has found its home, safe in a place where it can own the whole horizon.  

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Archer has been trying to make sense of religion since her parents first abandoned her at Sunday School in the 60s. She’s a mom, yoga teacher and repository of useless bits of information on ancient religion, spiritual practices and English grammar. Check out her column “Connections” in Witches and Pagans.


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