I became interested in the swastika symbol as I explored the prehistoric rock art of Ilkley Moor, near where I live in Leeds. The Swastika Stone carving fascinated and compelled me. Gradually, I came to treasure this landscape, and this carving became a very important, highly sacred symbol for me. The only reminders up there of Hitler’s abuse of the swastika were the occasional stickers on the moor’s benches put there by Combat 18 (a British fascist group, once very active in Yorkshire).
Were these dangerous right-wingers trying to co-opt the Swastika Stone? Well, the carving is certainly over 2000 years old, possibly up to 8000 years old. For me, the absurdity of trying to associate this holy Celtic or even Neolithic glyph with insane modern ideologies caused any Nazi associations to slip effortlessly from this sacralised outcrop.
But for the vast majority of Westerners today, Hitler’s efforts to appropriate the swastika—whose history stretches back to the Palaeolithic Ukraine—and turn it into the symbol for the Nazis’ race-supremacist policies and atrocities, have been entirely successful. The symbol has become synonymous with genocide, hatred, and pure evil. When you search for ‘swastika’ on the internet, you get endless pages called ‘Fight Against the Swastika’ or something similar.
One web site stood out conspicuously among these documents of 20th century mass madness. Friends of the Swastika was an effort to reclaim this symbol from its recent associations. Here you found images to astound and profoundly re-educate you. Hopi swastikas. Buddhist swastikas. Jewish swastikas. Swastikas gracing the covers of Rudyard Kipling’s books up until 1933. Swastikas in early Coke adverts. Swastikas on First World War British food stamps!
The site, and the network it represented, was initiated by the visionary Canadian artist ManWoman, whose name, like his mission, arose from persistent dreams. He wore his commitment to his cause wherever he went—he had over 200 swastikas tattooed on his body. I was delighted to find this web site, and to see how this inspiring movement to reclaim one of humanity’s most popular sacred symbols had started to flourish.
ManWoman died on November 15th 2012.
Gyrus: How did the swastika come into your life?
ManWoman: I had no idea that the swastika was sacred. Some of my Polish relatives were in Auschwitz so I had the usual conditioning against it. In 1965 I had a series of spontaneous trance visions in which my soul flew up into the inner source of everything—a radiant light that was extremely ecstatic. It blessed me, it healed me in a profound way. In some of the visions it was a vortex of power. After this the swastika appeared in my dreams and in one very powerful moment a wise old man told me, “Take this symbol as your own and redeem it so that it will strike love in all hearts that behold it.” I choked and he marked my throat with a white swastika (which I later had tattooed) using his finger.
Gyrus: I suppose you’re aware of American Indian myths connecting creation with the swastika and the throat. One myth tells of a god who took a bird and whirled it around until it got dizzy and hallucinated everything into existence! And gorgets (worn on the throat) showing four birds emanating from the Centre have been found at Spiro Mound in Oklahoma.
Do you connect the swastika with the throat, in terms of the voice, poetry and creation?
ManWoman: The thing that I love is that I wasn’t aware of any of these myths at the time. This stuff all poured out from my depths unlooked for. That story of the bird hallucinating everything into existence makes more sense to me than the Adam and Eve bit. In the Kundalini yogic system the throat is the centre of creativity and self-expression. In my dream the swastika on my throat was to help me speak out for the swastika and to give me courage. The prime quality of the swastika seems to be creativity. In a recent dream I saw the nature of existence as a burning white octopus with a lightbulb of creative idea over his head. On the end of each of his many arms was a being like a dog, a cat, a woman, a man, a gorilla, a bird, a snake, etc. The notion of separation is an illusion as there is only one consciousness creating all the play of this world. And when we see this clearly we can co-create and influence the direction this world takes. If you can get past the prison of your own face, life is swimming molecules waiting to dance with you. My throat was marked with the swastika in about 1968. Now thirty years later I see kids walking around with swastika tattoos. Did I help to create this by my focussed intentions or was I just picking up on an inevitable occurrence with my artist’s visionary antennae?
Gyrus: What are some of the more extreme reactions you’ve got from people in the street? Has there been anyone who just hasn’t been able to see what you’re trying to do in redeeming the swastika symbol?
ManWoman: Sometimes I feel eyes burning into my arms and I look up to see looks of great fear, anger and revulsion on faces. It’s hard to explain yourself to passing strangers in ten words or less so I have to live with this. Although my life is much easier now because the word is spreading—so many of the Swastika Friends are out there now helping me. One time an old man approached me on the street threatening to whack me with his cane and calling me a fascist. I began telling him about the history of the swastika and soon he was using his cane to keep me away as if I was truly crazy. Another time I stopped to pick up a hitchhiker coming back from LA. She looked desperate for a ride but she leapt out of my van screaming, “Nazi, Nazi!” as if she had sat on an electric wire.
One time I was in Fort Worth, Texas and there was a convention of B-52 bomber pilots in the hotel. My wife wanted us to sneak in the back door but I walked boldly into the lobby and by the end of the weekend they were all having their pictures taken with me to prove it to the folks back at home.
The worst episode was on Muscle Beach in Venice, California, when three angry Jewish body builders surrounded me and started screaming. One shoved his gold Hebrew good luck charm in my face and said, “What about my symbol?” I had to do some fast talking. They were surprised when I said I wasn’t anti-semitic. I knew that they wouldn’t believe that the swastika was an ancient Jewish symbol found in synagogues (this is true) so I told them it was a Buddhist symbol and they slowly cooled down. My other Swastika Friends who were with me were amazed when I actually parted friends with the Jews because I was totally candid with them and they believed me. They were only reacting to their conditioning (my charm and my third eye tattoo helped). Soon I will be able to put my book Gentle Swastika into peoples’ hands when these situations come up. At the New York City Tattoo Convention last spring a woman approached me on the street. She said, “You’re awfully brave to be showing your arms in this town. It’s owned by Jews.” But what can I do? I’m following the directions of my dreams which have given me quite the adventure in this lifetime. If I don’t speak out, who will?
But there is another side to this. Sometimes people get really ecstatic when we meet and do handstands in the street because they thought they were alone, the only one in the world to be fascinated by the “evil” swastika, and then suddenly they see this defiant guy tattooed with 200 swastikas and a third eye and the light goes on. That’s why Friends of the Swastika is growing so fast—it’s like discovering your lost tribe, like discovering that you aren’t the ugly duckling, a misfit, but a swan, a different more spiritual creature altogether!
Gyrus: Have you tried starting dialogue with representatives of the Jewish community about your work?
ManWoman: Not officially. I met a rabbi in San Francisco who was very intrigued. Quite a few Jews have signed the declaration of independence of the swastika that I started a couple of years ago. One said, “Don’t tell my mother,” because he was breaking the chain of conditioning that has perpetuated the hatred of an innocent symbol wrongfully defamed. This was a brave act. And of course I have a lot of Jewish friends who have been challenged during our friendship and now see beyond their tragic past. I haven’t emailed the Jewish Defense League. No point in provoking people. I’m out to re-educate not to be intentionally a shit-disturber. However last fall in Calgary Alberta I had a show and one of the paintings contained a swastika representing the mystical source. Outraged citizens phoned the local JDL president who came over to meet me. He walked into the gallery, looked at the painting and said, “Now that looks more like the old Hindu swastika to me,” and I knew right then I could have a dialogue with this man. He told me to call him if anyone gave me static about it. All I ask of Jews is to look at the thousands of years of sacred history of the swastika and to say okay the swastika has another life independent of the second world war. Not everyone using a swastika is anti-semitic. Over half the world’s population still honors it as a sacred sign.
Gyrus: Give us a thumbnail sketch of swastika history.
ManWoman: Okay. It was used for centuries as a symbol of good luck by Greeks, Romans, Celts, Vikings, Christians, Jews, Africans, Mayans, Aztecs, Chinese, Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Tibetans, Hopi, Cree, and wandering neolithic tribes. To Hell with Hitler!
Gyrus: You held a convention in the town of Swastika in Ontario. How did this town get its name, and what attitude do the citizens have now to the symbol, and what you’re doing?
ManWoman: Two brothers, the Dusty brothers, found gold on that location—tons and tons of gold! One of their girlfriends wore a swastika good luck charm on a pendant around her neck. They named the mine Swastika Mine because of their good fortune. Two years later another gold mine was found and they called it Lucky Cross Mine. Lucky Cross is what the Indians called the swastika. When the town grew up around these mines it was called Swastika, Ontario in 1911. They fought a hard battle during the Second World War because the Canadian government wanted to rename the town Winston to honor Churchill. The towns folk sneaked out at night and changed the signs back to Swastika. They have fought criticism from many people over the years but have kept the name. They made one concession—they did not display the symbol on their store fronts as they did in the past. The citizens like what I’m doing because it takes the heat off them. Many people in Canada have heard my message now and the word is spreading. The town of Swastika has recently started using the swastika symbol on the buttons they wear during their winter games festival.
Gyrus: Some of your artwork is outrageously sexual! Also, you described your initial visionary experiences as being ‘gang-banged by holiness’. A lot of people must have a whole series of cultural barriers to leap before they appreciate your work!
ManWoman: Yes, that was a series where I was trying to exorcise the Catholic nineteen fifties sexual hang-ups I inherited and had dragged behind me for years. You can leave church but does it leave you? I called it Smut Therapy where the paintings were the therapy. I was raised on a bully god who was pleased if you were dead from the neck down. He created you imperfect and then was pissed off when you acted imperfect—go figure!
My visionary experiences were of a sweet bride soul ascending up into the ecstatic light—burning up, freed of ego and melting into oneness. But the other aspect, unspoken at the time, was that this plunge of my soul into the void of pure pleasure was just like the plunge of my penis into a juicy vagina and the explosion of my sperm up into the womb of the sacred. Free at last! Whole at last! I knew nothing of the Tantric and was slightly disturbed by the parallel because of all the “god hates sex” I had been taught. Now I could say I’m having sex with god. The whole universe is nothing but fucking, endless cycles of birth, becoming, bliss—billions of vaginas popping out new life. People have sex, animals have sex, plants have sex—and love is at the centre of all. I had to dream up an new incarnation for god. God needs a facelift! Perhaps the audience for my work is still unborn but every generation loves it more than the last.
Gyrus: What are your immediate plans for the Friends of the Swastika network—where do you see it going?
ManWoman: I don’t know. It is growing so fast, I’ll just see where it takes me. I started by myself thirty years ago. Twenty years ago I met Carolyn O’Neil from Swastika, Ontario. Ten years ago there were four of us. Then, after the interview in Modern Primitives by Re/Search of San Francisco in 1989, it built into about fifty friends around the world by snail mail, pen-pal style. Now only six months after putting Friends of the Swastika online I’ve got hundreds of friends all over the world. Some have suggested a membership fee and newsletter. I like it as a grass-roots movement without a lot of organization or control. I’m getting photos and info from all parts of the world such as I did from you when you sent me the photos of the famous Swastika Stone on Ilkley Moor in Yorkshire. It’s a friendship of kindred souls and now that we have a guest book we can all interconnect. I’m not quite sure where it’s going but plenty of enthusiasts are asking to get involved even if that means getting a swastika tattoo or just spreading the word to others. It’s a place where major ignorance needs to be overcome and there’s a certain safety in numbers. I’m not asking anyone to be a martyr. The swastika has a tremendous stigma attached to it. You, yourself, are aiding this cause by interviewing me and I thank you for that.
I just did another interview for the July issue of International Tattoo Art magazine. The Swastika is re-emerging in the alternative pop culture much to the shock of those who are still thinking in the old idiom: in the punk rock world, in the flying saucer cults, in the street gangs, in the renaissance of tattooing that is happening—tribal tattoos like Celtic knots, Maori spirals, the Buddhist seal of perfection. The Declaration of Independence of the Swastika has been signed by many famous artists, poets, tattooers; cool people including Lyle Tuttle, Leo Zulueta, Hanky Panky of Amsterdam, Billy Shire, Charles Gatewood, Spider Webb, Robert Delford Brown, Clayton Patterson, Joe Coleman, Bob Roberts, Steve Bonge, Chris Pfouts, Jonathan Shaw, Jack Rudy and Paul Jeffries. I’m very excited about it! Especially looking back on the dream I had about redeeming the swastika thirty years ago. The time is ripe!
Photo of ManWoman (c) Mark Berry 2009