I was walking through the Mission District after class when I saw her on the wall in Clarion Alley. My first thought was “Whoa. I wouldn’t mess with her.” She appears in this space dedicated to public art projects in the name of resistance, wielding a scythe with the words “Defend SF” emblazoned across the handle, an array of tombstones at her feet – I’m not sure if those are the remains of enemies she’s slain or in memory of fallen comrades who are now part of the ground she stands upon.
What is she defending San Francisco against? The other murals in the alley might give us an indication – powerful outcries against racism, sexism, homophobia, and brutality of all kinds, rising out of a city and its people struggling to preserve a rich and diverse cultural heritage in the face of encroaching corporatism and displacement.
Yet she still remains a mystery – I couldn’t find her on the Clarion Alley Mural Project website or other sites cataloging San Francisco street art. When it comes to mythic resonances, her necklace of human skulls (a great accessory for showing you mean business) reminds me of Kali, a fearsome deity from the Hindu tradition. According to one story, she emerged from the goddess Durga’s head during battle in order to defeat a rampaging demon able to multiply himself when drops of his blood touched the ground. Kali effectively solved this problem by slaughtering the demon’s clones and drinking all his blood.
When I noticed the black bird in the background of the painting, I thought of someone else too: The Morrigan from Irish mythology, a deity believed to have originated as a triple-figured sovereignty goddess who later became more strongly associated with the battlefield. She appeared to famous heroes, either in the form of a crow or a woman washing bloody clothes at a ford, as an omen of their death – to remind them that no matter how proud they were of their military prowess or previous successes, they weren’t going to escape her.
Whoever she is, and whatever her task – whatever demons she is here to slay or overconfident “heroes” to be put in their place – I’m sure it’s going to be painful, especially if you are standing in her way. Maybe the artist was inspired by the ancient symbols of various cultures; maybe she appeared to the artist in a dream. Maybe she arose from the soil and concrete and frustrated rage of the city itself. And even if some of her iconography echoes that of other places, this particular figure – who I have nicknamed “The Defendress” – seems uniquely San Franciscan. I’m guessing those are cannabis leaves in her hair, and on one of her tattooed shoulders sits a butterfly, perhaps signaling a dark yet beautiful transformation to come.
“The Mythic Everyday” is a rotating column featured on the Immanence Blog and in our Myth in Focus Newsletter. Readers are welcome to share snapshots and anecdotes of where they’ve encountered myth in their everyday lives. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org – please note that images must be copy-right free (or copyright owned by author) and will be resized to fit our webpage.
Hannah Custis is a teacher, writer, and Ph.D. student at the California Institute of Integral Studies. She is also the Blog Coordinator for the Immanence Journal editorial team.