Losing Your Children to Patriarchy*

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There are many ways to lose your children. Some parents endure the death of a child from illness or accident. Others, like my own parents, lost their only son to suicide.

 

I lost my children to the dominant culture. Of course, as a young twenty one year old mother I colluded in this process without knowing it. First by repeating the cycle of abuse I had been born into, and then making a series of poor choices as a young woman and mother.

 

I grew up in a terrifying abusive family, one that looked like the “American Dream”- great from the outside – rotten from within. Living in an upper middle class environment in a “nice” house in the country in upper Westchester New York my father ran a successful business and my mother was a stay at home housewife and artist. Both considered themselves academics because each had attended the colleges of their choice, although my mother never received an undergraduate degree. My father was an immigrant who came to this country from Italy when he was 12 and put himself and his brothers through college becoming an aeronautical engineer in the process. My mother, an only child, came from a family of privilege and she never let anyone forget that, particularly her daughter who she treated like a servant.

 

Inside our family walls unspeakable violence of all kinds occurred. Both of my parents drank – a lot. My mother used deathly silence as a means to control her husband and children, sometimes refusing to speak to the perceived offender for a week. Sometimes, she inexplicably left home for days. I was so terrorized by the threat of those silences/abandonment that I did anything my mother wanted me to, giving up my personal self in the process. My father’s explosive rages kept both his children walking on egg – shells whenever he was around which fortunately was only on weekends. We both hated him, gravitating towards our mother who seemingly was the better of the two because she endured this abusive behavior although she struck out at her children instead.

 

Theirs was a marriage made in hell. Silence and Rage make poor bed partners, and I remember begging my mother to divorce my father when I was barely six years old (it is astonishing to me that I knew what divorce meant at that age).

 

To escape my family I went away to college and got married.

 

My abusive drunken husband threw me down the stairs when I was three months pregnant with my first child.

 

Four years later my brother killed himself just after graduating from Harvard.

 

Single motherhood became the worst nightmare in my life after the loss of my only brother who I adored.

 

As a suicide survivor I believed that I owed my parents my children and willingly surrendered them whenever my parents wanted them (a prime example of what survivor’s guilt can do).

 

How did I manage to forget what it had been like living with people like that?

 

It wasn’t until mid –life after having made the terminal mistake of letting my parents “parent” my children that I began to suspect that something was very wrong with them, and that maybe I wasn’t the whole problem after all.

 

By that time I was divorced, my children were grown, and both had left home. It was too late to repair the damage. I didn’t understand at the time that my children had internalized the very worst of their grandparents’ patriarchal values of “power over” and were embracing my parents’ view about how defective their daughter was as a human being.

 

I began to craft my own authentic life.

 

I thought time would soften my children’s vicious treatment of me.

 

I didn’t realize that my children thrived on this sense of having emotional power over their mother.

 

Power Over, not Love.

 

I am ashamed to admit that I kept trying to repair the damage with both of my children up until this year, enduring the silent treatment, endless bullying, and verbal abuse at the hands of my youngest son after my oldest simply shut the door on our relationship 25 years ago.

 

This is not to say that eventually I didn’t became aware of what had/was happening.

 

I did, but like Cinderella, I kept “hope” alive for a different ending.

 

Until now.

 

This spring the chains that once bound me as a sorrowing mother snapped and I was set free.

 

Grace intervened.

 

At this point in my life I respect who I have become too much to sanction more “family” (familiar) abuse.

 

Still, it is frightening to acknowledge how our personal accounts repeat themselves over generations without interruption.

 

These family stories are bigger and more powerful than we can ever know, creating a cautionary tale for those who think they have escaped abusive situations. We either repeat the story, or embrace its opposite. In rare cases, if we have the courage, we can break the cycle, something I hope that I am doing today.

 

First Harvest Moon (The Blueberry Moon – 2017)

Published on the day of my youngest son’s 49th birthday.

 

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Afternotes:

 

The word Patriarchy requires an explanation:

 

Historically, Patriarchy was defined as “The Power of the Fathers.”

 

This definition is partially correct. Patriarchy is a hierarchal system of domination that thrives on white lower, middle, and upper class men (and some male identified women) having power over other less fortunate individuals especially other women.

 

Carol Christ defines Patriarchy as a system of power that seeks to control women through their sexuality.

 

However we define it, Patriarchy is a destructive system that is endemic to our culture and is mirrored by the collective in countless ways including our insatiable need to “control” nature.

 

(As an eco – feminist I believe that what we do to nature we do to women. A poignant example is the way we continue to sanction rape of both women and the trees that provide us with oxygen to breathe).

 

An equally horrifying example is the attempt by the dominant culture to control a woman’s right to have an abortion. A woman’s right to choose is just that – a basic human right to have control over her bodily processes including pregnancy.

 

I have worked with women for most of my life, and I have never met a woman who didn’t struggle with the right to choose abortion, and then have to deal with the guilt and shame she endured as a result of making the choice to end a pregnancy.

 

As a naturalist/ethologist I am struck by how nature has built in abortion as a response to too much stress in most non – human species, if not all. If the mother in question does not have enough food or resources to survive, spontaneous abortions occur without danger to the mother. Survival of the potential mother comes first.

 

Black bears, for example, practice something called delayed implantation, which means that the mother mates in the spring, but the fetus will not develop unless that mother has sufficient food and has gained enough weight to survive hibernation. If she has, cubs will be born and cared for while the mother is denning during the winter.

 

In my own life I experienced a spontaneous abortion after leaving my abusive alcoholic husband. I had no money, no place to live, one toddler and one 6 month old baby (I went to work as a waitress). Without support from my family I did not see any way through this horrific situation until Nature mercifully stepped in and ended a third pregnancy.

 

Most desperate women are not as fortunate.

 

I have come to embrace Carol Christ’s belief that Patriarchy is primarily a system that seeks to control woman through every aspect of her sexuality. The obscene emphasis on the way women are supposed to stay “ young” is yet another way we cage our women like the animals we consume so mindlessly, objectifying ourselves and animals without consent or compassion.

 

As women, we still struggle to develop an identity beyond being someone’s mother, wife, grandmother, servant.

The Woman Who Respects Herself…

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The Woman Who Respects Herself:

(A Tribute to Bears, Women, and the Men who love them)

 

The Woman Who Respects Herself

has learned how to Love.

 

She stands up for the Hunted,

the Abused,

for Herself,

no matter how steep the personal cost.

 

The invisible are real to her –

animals, trees, and people.

They call themselves the Anawim –

“the forgotten ones.”

 

The Woman Who Respects Herself

has learned how to Love.

 

She has not accomplished this act alone.

She was mirrored by animals, plants, and people

who saw her as she was,

and did not despise vulnerability.

 

The Woman Who Respects Herself.

has learned how to Love.

 

Bears first taught her about Trust,

how fragile the connection

between self and other remains,

dependent upon respect for Difference,

Mutuality in relationship,

the Gift of being Seen.

 

The Woman Who Respects Herself.

has learned how to Love.

 

Even now He comes,

Medicine Bear, Healer, Friend,

denizen of the forest

slipping through a veil

of emerald green.

 

Thanks to Him –

 

The Woman Who Respects Herself.

has learned how to Love.

 

Yet fear grips her heart

for a mangled paw

and a blood spattered head –

death strikes in a can.

 

The Woman Who Respects Herself.

has learned how to Love.

 

Yet she cannot help Him.

 

Even a Medicine Bear cannot protect

his fierce attachment to Body –

to Survival.

 

Few recognize that the Spirit of All Life

is snuffed out in these multiple acts

of mindless violence.

 

The Woman Who Respects Herself

Has learned how to Love.

 

Keening, she cries out in protest

of murderous men.

Those who would slaughter

the innocent –

women, men, and bears.

 

This Woman Who Respects Herself

has learned how to Love…

 

Postscript:

 

There is a lot happening here in this poem. On one level it speaks to the Power of Love to shift personal awareness. The poem alludes to a personal story of how this woman was taught by a bear how to love and respect herself by interacting with some over a period of many years. Some people also helped and they know who they are…

 

The poem also addresses the issue of relatedness because what we do to these animals we do to ourselves. Every single time we snuff out an innocent life we also slaughter the Spirit of Life on this planet.

 

By writing this poem I am also protesting the slaughter of bears in Maine. This egregious practice of bear butchery begins on July 29 and extends to November 25th, and black bears (who are prey animals that co- evolved into their present state with trees during the last ice age) and who are generally shy and reclusive by nature are cast as the Demonic Killer Bear by men who project their own fear, violence, and hatred onto these animals and then massacre them without mercy.

 

Bear baiting involves baiting a bear in the woods when s/he is most vulnerable. Bears are simply shot with their heads in a can while eating. Females “tree” their first year cubs before entering a bait site. The black bear depends upon berries for caloric value and this year the berry crops are failing so the bears are more desperate than usual, needing to put on enough fat in order to survive hibernation. They will eat anything with fat in it and are usually baited with donuts. Worse, the young males are seeking new territories, and so these youngsters are the most vulnerable of all. Most of the bears killed are these yearlings, bears weighing less than 100 pounds.

 

Bear hounding pits dogs against bears (the two species are related) and hounds chase the unfortunate victims until they are exhausted, separating mothers from cubs and often killing them (in Maine almost as many females as males are murdered). First year cubs will perish without parental care.

 

Bear trapping is illegal in every state except Maine. Bears sometimes gnaw their paws off to get free of these steel snare traps and then starve to death because they can no longer walk or protect themselves. Bears are eventually shot by the trapper, who might not check his lines more than once a week. The pain for the trapped, starving bear is unbearable.

 

In Maine a bear can also be shot at any time “if s/he is considered a threat” which means that any bear that is passing by through someone’s backyard can be annihilated without consequences. Bears have no rights.

 

It is true that one in about a million bears does become a predator of man, so occasionally the tables are turned, but not often enough to suit me.

The Gift of July

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Thick moist heat bathes

The night in crimson,

Drives bears deep

into sphagnum bogs to dream.

 

Fireflies drift through

Sweet wet grass.

Hidden under leafy branches,

Grey tree frogs trill.

 

Blood red cardinals whistle love songs,

teach offspring to chirp

sharp staccato rounds

at the threshold of dawn…

 

Rainbow light filters

through crystals formed by dew…

 

Kingfisher’s absence

won’t be missed

by transforming toads,

but the drought may crack

the vernal pool too soon

for lungs to form.

 

The doe grazes outside my window

under a blistering noon day star.

Chomping down wild rose thorns,

red deer shred supple grape leaves,

nip bee balm for after dinner mint!

 

Gray foxes feast on treats I leave

beneath heavily perfumed pines.

Grapes, old cranberries, apples,

hunks of fat and bone marrow – perhaps

a carcass entices them in.

 

When mountains fade under clouds

of thick fog Our Lady ascends,

her nimbus shrouded in pearl-

like mist. One night soon she’ll

sing up the Toad Moon.

 

A wave of gratitude swells and breaks.

An emerald sea is moving through me.

Water and air create a symphony –

Breath deep and listen!

The Soul of Nature sounds a joyous hum.

 

Working notes:

I wrote this poem early last July during the terrible drought of 2016 here at my “home” in Maine. I was trying to concentrate on the more positive aspects around the drought  which distressed me so deeply. Not hearing the kingfisher’s cries, the shrinking pools, a brook so low I couldn’t hear her soothing sound, the scarcity of toads – I could go on and on here – left me feeling so helpless – so profoundly depressed. When I returned from Abiquiu, New Mexico a week ago after being away for 11 months I was struck by lines of this poem because the weather conditions in Maine had been totally reversed in one year. We arrived and spent the first week under monsoon conditions with almost continuous rain, lovely wet fog rising off the mountains, and extremely cool temperatures for ‘almost’ July. Kingfisher is back and toads and frogs are abundant, breathing in lovely moist air. My skin feels like velvet.

Flowers are bent double under silvery sheets of rain. I still have lemon lilies. My water barrels are full. Whenever rain falls I feel blessed – here or there – because water is life. The thunderstorm last night reminded me of the heavy rains that punctuated most late afternoons last August in Abiquiu while I was still living on the hill…Here a canopy of green shelters the house from the fiery sun even when it breaks through the clouds as it did this morning when I took the pictures that precede last year’s poem. The thick heavy morning air is still…and a young bear is eating wild strawberries.

In New Mexico the relentless heat drones on although yesterday my friend Iren wrote that two tenths of an inch of rain fell in Abiquiu. Any amount counts and I hope those few raindrops are a precursor of a healthy monsoon season to come. I feel a great thirst whenever I think about that beloved high desert, now another “home” place in my heart.

That global warming is a reality is obvious to anyone who pays attention to Nature’s  Warning Voice but it doesn’t change how heartbreaking it is to live through these  terrible extremes.

White Lily

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An oriental lily

wafts sweet scent

through thin air.

Speaking clearly

her spicy perfume

captures

my attention,

clouding

the white haze

of my grief.

 

White, the color

of death –

a dying flower

wrinkled,

paper thin,

yellowed,

her edges shrivel.

Only an emerald

pistil still

stands tall.

Brown pollen

Drifts aimlessly,

stains the luminous

pearl moon flower

that once was.

whole.

 

 

Working Notes:

I was given a bouquet of these most beautiful flowers a couple of days ago.

That same morning I dreamed that hope was dead.

The Fire moon was full this morning.

I am in mourning – for I must let go of a vision I held, perhaps, too close to my heart.

Grief has no boundaries, it swallows one whole.

I have disappeared down a rabbit hole

in the void of dark space.

 

Postscript 2

The male parts of a flower are called stamens and they usually surround the female pistil that contains an ovary at its base. The pollen from the stamens is carried by the wind and sticks to the sticky top of the pistil fertilizing the flower as it’s dying.

It interests me that the female parts of the flower dies last.

Summer Rain

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The sun burnishes the horizon

in spun gold, as he slips beneath

flat topped mountains at dusk..

The summer solstice

is nearly upon us;

Earth is heating up.

The merciless sky is

bleached bone at noon.

 

The third week of June

marks the end of the sun’s

relentless journey

to lengthen Earth’s days.

Sun seems oblivious to Shadow.

Twilight shrinks in his wake.

For a time it will seem like the star stands still,

Then a gradual reversal of directions

reinforces Nature’s truth –

Change is the only constant.

 

With his northern journey completed,

the sun will soon arc to the south.

His coming and going is both

Earth process, and cosmic event.

 

Within a month or so

after the longest day of the year has passed

silvery sheets of rain will slip

through thick gray clouds.

Instantly the earth turns green.

The summer rains are an act of becoming.

 

Who puffs up the clouds?

Some say Thunderbeings

stir the sky into frenzy.

Bolts of jagged steel lightening

strike randomly,

zapping parched cracked ground.

Rumbling ominously,  storm clouds

threaten to erase the line

between horizon and mountain.

Roaring arroyos fill,

spill over, flood fertile fields.

 

Did you know that an inch

of pure rain water

nourishes the Earth

more efficiently than

any water drawn from the ground?

 

This dance between the sun

and his lady,

Keeps the Earth in Balance.

Gardens explode with chilies, corn and beans!

When Cloud Woman weeps,

tears heal wounds.

Frogs and toads hum.

A flaming orange oriole

nests by the river

and sings from the Bosque

at twilight.

Women sing love songs

to honor our Blessed Mother

who brings the Gift of

Summer Rain.

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Working Notes:

 

The term “Blessed Mother” is used as a metaphor for the Soul of the Earth, and has nothing to do with religion.

This is the time of year that I find myself longing for twilight, that space in between, where light from the sun meets the one who dims the light.

I also dream of rain.

I have practical reasons for wishing that dark and light weren’t so extreme at this time of year. My eyes ache from being exposed to the fierce sun, even with sunglasses. I don’t sleep as soundly, or dream as deeply during the late spring and summer months. My energy shifts without warning. The mid -afternoon fiery heat is too intense and lasts too long into evening.

I also miss the shadows that are cast over the mountains during other seasons, revealing sharp contours and a depth that is no longer visible during the late spring or summer. Here in New Mexico the absence of rain often characterizes spring, although heavy winter snows at high elevations bring forth the most beautiful spring wild flowers, flaming orange globe mallows, crimson, purple, and sky blue penstemon, fiery Indian paintbrush, cornflower blue flax and the delicate gilia, purple mat, heron’s bill, violet vetches and an endless array of buttery yellow flowers. These lovely long months of spring are also sometimes clouded by fierce winds that blow in from the west stirring up spiraling tunnels of dust and debris. And tender seedlings curl inward crushed like paper under the shock of sudden frost.

And yet, whenever I am tempted to complain too much about the sun’s fiery rays and light that lingers too long, I remember that without the searing heat of this star, life would cease to exist. Plants and flowers couldn’t blossom, or produce seeds, or pods. The wild cactus wouldn’t swell with magenta, pink, yellow or red buds. The trees wouldn’t leaf out gifting us with precious shade like the elephant arms of the cottonwoods do as I pass under their cool canopies on my daily morning walks. The rabbits wouldn’t give birth and lizards couldn’t bask on rocks warmed by early morning sunlight.

I appreciate all the seasons for different reasons. Today we know that the solstice is an astronomical event caused by the earth’s 23.4 tilt on its rotational axis and it’s elliptical orbit around the sun. In the northern hemisphere, midsummer, or the summer solstice marks the longest day of the year, the day when the North Pole is leaning closest to the sun. As the earth orbits the sun the position of the two hemispheres change in relation to their starry center. At this time of year we lean towards the sun and summer begins, while in the southern hemisphere the earth is tilted away from the sun creating winter. A solstice happens at the same instant for all of us, everywhere on earth.

Oddly, it isn’t until after the summer solstice that the earth really heats up even though the days are already shortening in duration. This phenomenon is called the lag of the seasons. It’s the same reason that it’s hotter in mid-afternoon than at noon. Earth takes time to warm up. Even in June ice and snow still blanket the earth in some places. The sun has to melt the ice and warm the oceans before we experience summer heat. With global warming this process has been speeded up so we are, on the whole, experiencing hotter weather throughout the world. Our once permanently frozen polar ice is melting, flooding the oceans with more water and raising the water level on each continent.

As I approach summer I look forward to astonishing sunsets that stain the sky purple, crimson, gold, and midnight blue. I will walk through cool blue mornings. I imagine the clouds puffing up like tufts of thick cotton appearing on the horizon sometimes before noon, billowing skyward, nature’s balloons. Every afternoon there’s a chance for a shower, and this year I long to hear the Spadefoot toads that have been buried underground who appear like magic, with the advent of the first monsoon. I missed this serenade and no doubt, those of other amphibians, last year.

What I love most about summer is the rain. Indigenous Pueblo peoples believe that when thunder and lightening rule the skies a torrent of “male rain” floods even the high places. “Female” rain falls gently from a slate gray sky soaking every root, leaf and flower transforming the desert into an oasis teaming with life. Have you ever noticed that after any kind of rain the birds sing their hearts out, hummingbirds chirp wildly, and bees hum even at dusk?

Certainly a marriage between the two is needed to sustain life on this precious blue green planet.

Personally, I think the gender of the sun is male, while rain feels like a female element. Some would disagree unless they were eco – feminists like me! An eco – feminist, not a popular term today, links the abuse of women to the destruction of our planet. For example, I come from the northeast where the rape of the forest is ongoing, while U.S. statistics tell us that rape of women is on the rise. Women have been associated with trees in myth, story, and cultures since the dawn of humankind. No coincidence here.

Sanctioning one form of abuse seems to promote others. Our present U.S. political situation supports horrific abuse of all kinds.

Bufo americanus

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I recognized him at once

as he limped, one mangled leg,

one eye bleeding,

dragging himself across a dirt road

in search of a place to die.

 

The day went black

with sorrow.

 

Oh no, I keened,

stopping in front of him.

His mouth was open and closing,

– gasping –

with each labored breath.

Did he know how much

it mattered to me that he was hurt

so badly that there was no way

I could save him?

 

Bearing witness never seems to be enough.

 

It was hot – too hot.

Fierce sun dehydrates even

the toughest skin of toad or frog.

I couldn’t bear that he would die

of injuries compounded by thirst.

 

I ran back to get the car.

My intention was to

run him over, to

end his suffering.

But when I drove the car

down the dirt road

he was gone.

 

If only I could glimpse a toad

basking in the desert sand,

I thought until today.

Never imagining this…

 

I was going to a local seed exchange.

Seeds are about beginnings

but I was mourning a dying toad.

What salt – bush sheltered him?

Even purple seed corn kernels

left me joyless.

My soul was with that toad.

 

I was tired – too tired.

I left early, driving down

the winding red dirt road.

My only hope

was that by now

death had claimed the toad.

 

He would never know

that for the last month

I spent each night listening

for amphibious musical trills.

 

Later in the afternoon

I walked to the place

where I had last seen the toad.

And there he was,

quite still, squashed flat

by the only car

that could have hit him –

my own.

 

I buried him in the sand

that once warmed his flesh.

I closed his golden eye.

Sprinkled cornmeal…

How does one ever say goodbye?

 

Although we’d barely met,

I loved him.

Even in death

his life mattered

to one who would

have mothered him,

healing his wounds,

if only she had the chance.

 

Postscript:

Ever since coming to the high desert last August I have been hoping to catch sight of a toad or frog. I missed the early monsoon season when in one night the frogs emerged from hiding, sang love songs, and laid their eggs. I never met a toad. Last summer I lived back in the hills so perhaps toads don’t like it much up there. However, now that I am staying in this riparian sanctuary, situated near a flooded acequia and raging river, I believed toads and frogs must be around somewhere, and yet until today I never met either.

Bufo americanus, or the western toad looks exactly like his northern cousin in the east. In the spring toads are diurnal hunting during the day; in summer they become nocturnal. This was a large toad, probably 3 inches long. And he was actually a she because females are larger than males.

There is a small lily pond on this property that may eventually harbor black toad eggs laid in a double string of jelly below the surface of the water. However, this toad may not have had a chance to become a mother…I say this because the musical trills of this particular toad are very familiar to me, and I have not heard them during the day or at night. (Trilling occurs primarily at mating time and before and during egg laying).

To meet my first toad in the desert under these circumstances was very difficult for me because I have loved these amphibians since I was a small child, and in Maine, where my home is, I created a vernal pool for the toads that is situated next to the brook. Above on the hill in my flower garden, there is also a small lily pond for frogs and toads.

The synchronicity involved in this incident was also startling. The toad was initially run over by a friend of mine, who would be deeply upset if he knew. When I went back to get the car to kill the toad quickly to put him out of his misery, he simply wasn’t there. Unable to think about anything but the dying toad at the seed exchange, I returned home early and I must have been the one that finally ended the toad’s suffering without knowing it by running him over because this is a private road. Discovering the flattened toad helped me deal with my sorrow because the animal was no longer suffering.

It is also strange that I called the toad a male in the poem since I know large toads are all females and potential “mothers.”

To have this incident occur the day before “Mother’s Day” seems particularly poignant because I have spent a lot of time rehabilitating wounded animals etc., and there was nothing I could do to save this toad’s life.

With that much said, I am honoring Nature as the primal “Mother of All” on the eve of Mother’s Day.

I also honor myself.

I am also grieving with all mothers, who have lost “children,” human, or otherwise.

Rainbow Goddess

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Winged Iris flew over earth and sea.

Rainbows luminesced in her wake.

Messenger from the clouds,

she gathered up the rain,

pouring it on dry cracked ground.

 

One transplanted rhizome bore

three green swords, and

a single grassy stalk,

unfurled ruffled velvet blossoms.

Furry lemon tongues lured

hummingbird and bee…

Iris thrived, spreading a delft blue sky

amid flaming orange mallow.

 

Working Notes:

Early this morning when I went out to water my plants I experienced a moment of wonder. The single stalk and leaves that had grown out of a rabbit ravaged Iris rhizome that I had rescued, was unfurling its first bud. The unexpected sight of this large delicately fluted blue flower in the early morning light sparked a moment of pure joy as a hummingbird hovered over her … Bright orange Globe mallow is an astonishing wildflower that springs up without assistance and it covers my desert backyard making a delightful contrast of colors.

In Greek Mythology Iris was goddess of the rainbow and a messenger from the gods. She was also a goddess of sea and sky. Her father was a god of the sea. Her mother was a cloud nymph. For the coastal dwelling Greeks the rainbow arc spanned the distance between cloud and sea, and the virgin goddess (as in one unto herself having nothing to do with being celibate) Iris replenished the rain clouds with water from the sea.