Demeter, Kore/Persephone, and mental illness

June 16, 2017

Crystal and I facilitated a Circle on the Goddess and mental health at The Hive a month ago or so and I tackled some of the deep stuff with this investigation of one of the greatest myths of all humankind.

Note: The Greek pronunciation is as follows: “Deh-MEE-ter,” “KAW-ree,” “per-SEH-fo-nee,” and “HEK-uh-tee.” Contemporary Pagans often mispronounce these names. IMO, if you’re going to be working with these goddesses, the least you can do is learn how to pronounce their names correctly.

DEMETER AND KORE/PERSEPHONE STORY

This is one of the oldest Greek myths and one of the most continually told. My summary below is a way simplified version focusing only on the goddesses in the story for purposes of the Circle.

Demeter is the goddess of agriculture and spent her days teaching its arts and tending to the grain. Kore, her daughter, loved to play with the nymphs nearby and collect flowers. One day while playing she saw a narcissus and was captivated — she had to have it! She plucked the flower — and suddenly a great rent opened in the earth and everything shook. In a flash a golden chariot led by four black horses came bounding up from out of the earth. There was a man in the chariot and he seized Kore and took her back underground with him. The earth healed; there was no trace of her passing. All that remained was the echo of her screams as she was taken.

Demeter was working in the fields when she heard Kore scream. She ran, calling out Kore’s name, asking everyone she met if they’d seen her daughter, but to no avail. With mounting terror she began to try to find Kore, despair eating away at her heart. At night she burned torches and kept searching. For nine days and nights she searched for Kore, dressed in black, torches burning, but to no avail. She sat on a stone in silence.

On the tenth day Hecate, goddess of the crossroads and witchcraft, came to her and told her that Kore had been seized by Hades and taken to his kingdom in the Underworld and was now prisoner. Demeter knew then that all was lost. She fell into even deeper despair and began to wander aimlessly.

One hot day she rested on the side of a well, where she was approached by a young woman who got her a position taking care of queen Metaneira’s son in the palace at Eleusis. Demeter shook off her despair and took the boy to her heart. She decided to give him immortality and fed him ambrosia and nectar. At night, she placed him in the fire to burn his mortality away. But one night the queen came in while Demeter watched over the baby in the fire and began shrieking that Demeter was trying to murder her child.

Demeter was PISSED. She threw off her rags and revealed herself in all her splendor, and was recognized as a goddess. She demanded that the people of Eleusis build her a temple, which they did in short order. She took up a seat in the temple and then went into a deep catatonic state. As she did this, all the food on the earth began to die. The grain dried up in the fields, the fruit would not ripen, gardens went dead.

As this went on, the Olympian gods grew anxious and tried to get Demeter to snap out of it. When they realized nothing was working, Zeus sent Hermes to the Underworld to get Kore. Mother and daughter were united and the earth flowered again. All was well.

That’s Demeter’s part. Let’s look back at what happened to Kore.

When Hades seized her and took her to the Underworld, Kore lost it. In most of the written accounts, Hades raped Kore. This is really endemic to the Greek patriarchy and it’s up to you whether you want to go with that account or with the older one where Kore was simply abducted. There are things to learn from both accounts.

Kore had never known a hard day in her life. Every day had been filled with her mother’s love and guidance, with sunshine, with flowers, with laughter, with play. Now she was ripped from everything she knew and held captive in a room in the dark and creepy Underworld. She screamed and thrashed for a long, long time. And after that came a time of stillness, similar to catatonia. She was just—gone.

Time passed. Hades brought her food and drink every day but she did not respond. Then he left her door unlocked. Then he left it open. No change.

This went on for some time. Then one day, she moved. Just a little. She blinked. She moved her toes. She stretched her fingers. She began to come back to herself. But she felt numb inside.

After a few days she got up and started looking around, taking in the different sacred sites of the Underworld and seeing how it operated. After some time Hades came to her and told her he loved her and wanted her to be queen at his side. She turned away and walked off silently.

More time passed. Kore grew more restless in her wanderings. Against her will traitorous thoughts of what she could do as queen entered her mind. And could she love Hades, both the god and the realm? She knew she wanted nothing more than to see her mother again, but what if she were trapped here forever?

As the days passed her mind grew more active and she thought more and more. And then she planted a garden of hellabore and other plants of the Underworld. She used shining gems to line the edges of her plots. As she buried her hands in the earth, she felt life coming back to her. And with life, came clarity. She would choose.

At the appropriate time Hades brought her food and drink as he always did. “Wait,” she said, and he stood silently. Very deliberately she cut a pomegranate in half and ate six seeds. “You may call me Persephone now,” she told Hades. “I will marry you, and I will be queen of this realm.” As she tasted the pomegranate seeds and claimed her new name, she felt a sureness come over her. And with that sureness, life. She had made it through. She claimed her life.

Some time later a messenger from Zeus arrived and told her she was free to come back to her mother. Persephone leapt into the chariot, called Hades to her side, and rode up to the surface. Mother and daughter fled to each other and held each other tight, sobbing. It felt so good to see the sun again. And how she had missed her mother! But strangely, she felt different now. Her mother kept repeating her old name until Persephone said “You must call me Persephone now.” Demeter drew back and for the first time saw her child, no more a child but now a woman.

Persephone told her she had eaten six pomegranate seeds. While Demeter was horrified, since she knew what this meant, Persephone was calm as she said, “I ate six seeds of the Underworld, which means I will spend six months of each year in the Underworld with my husband as queen. And the other six months I will spend here with you.”

At first Demeter was aghast but after the other gods and goddesses chimed in and she grew more used to the idea, she accepted it. She gave the people of Eleusis the Eleusinian Mysteries, a set of religious rites that promised joy in life and no fear of death. These rites were the primary religious ritual in Greece for two thousand years.

DEMETER AND PERSEPHONE, DECONSTRUCTED

The story of Demeter and Persephone is very famous, has been re-imagined countless times, and can be used as a metaphor for just about anything. For me, I have used it as a way to understand my mental illnesses. You may also feel so called. So let’s deconstruct the story and figure what’s going on.

The story starts with Demeter and Kore. Demeter is a mother goddess and Kore is practically a nymph, filled with the joy of living moment to moment. She doesn’t have a job or work the way Demeter does. When she sees the narcissus flower, she is entranced by narcissism, which is a condition whereby you are extremely self-involved. You are fascinated by yourself and don’t really care about anyone else. She plucks the narcissus, choosing narcissism, and all hell breaks loose — literally. She is ripped from her known way of being. Being simply abducted is a gross violation, but if you tell the story that she was raped, it’s even more horrific when you consider the carefree girl she was.

So let’s leave her there are go back to Demeter. Demeter first acts like any parent — she searches for her daughter. This is the search we as adults all go on for our innocence. We yearn for simpler times when we had fewer cares and responsibilities. In the waking world, this may mean that we take a day off work which then becomes several days and then becomes weeks until we’re fired. We just drop everything and go searching for something else.

At the end of the ninth night, Demeter has given up hope. She thinks she’s hit rock-bottom. But no, here’s Hecate with the awful truth — her daughter will never be returned to her again. This is where we realize that we can’t get in touch with that inner innocence. We fall into the pit of depression and begin, like Demeter did, to wander the earth so to speak. This can be a mild depressive episode where all color leaches out of the world. We can’t seem to hold onto anything. We stop sleeping, we either stop eating or start bingeing, we lose our sex drive.

But then Demeter gets a job. And it’s taking care of a baby to whom she decides to give immortality. What is she doing? She’s trying to make another immortal Kore. She is going to force the issue and make reality conform to her demands. She is refusing to accept her life and believes that through sheer force of will she will feel better again. In my own life, some of my most damaging behavior comes about when I am whipping myself to get better, get better, get better. This is what Demeter’s doing — she’s trying to force things into place.

But then she’s discovered and she gets PISSED. For me, this is that moment where I say, “GodDAMmit!” We’re just so frustrated that we can’t make anything happen. We’ve tried as hard as we can but we can’t get anywhere. We may not demand a temple be built for us, but we find a place of stone and we go in it for good. We become catatonic. We are in a severe depression, bordering on a psychotic state. It may be a complete dissociative state. What we know is that everything is bleak, there is no purpose in life, and everything we encounter is dust in our mouths. Or maybe it’s bad enough that we are no longer there at all — we have entered what in the vernacular is called madness. In the waking world, we may be hospitalized and given medication.

After she’s reunited with Persephone, Demeter bestows the Mysteries on Eleusis, “that which gives joy to life and takes away the fear of death.” She has gone through the depths and come out with wisdom to share. She has become the “wounded healer.”

So let’s leave that there and go back to Kore. She is locked in a dark room in the creepy Underworld and as far as she knows she’s there forever. Whether she’s been abducted or both abducted and raped, her life will never be the same. Many of us are survivors of some form of sexual or physical assault and we all have our own ways of coming through that. But regardless of the trigger for Kore’s experience, she is now thrashing and screaming, completely out of her old way of being. She protests and rages against everything that has so suddenly and cruelly been taken away from her. But it’s more than just a rage — it’s savagery. It’s animalistic. It goes beyond just being pissed off. It’s chthonic. Primal.

But at the end of it she’s spent. And she, like Demeter, falls into an extreme depressive and even mad state. I have always felt that Kore had it tougher than Demeter. Perhaps that’s because I identify with her so closely. Your experience may differ. But both these goddesses experience being outside consensual reality.

It takes a long time for Kore to come out of it. In the Sumerian myth of Inanna’s Descent, when Inanna comes back to life in the Underworld, it’s because water and food are brought to her by demigods. But the Greek myths are pretty silent on Kore’s processes, so I have imagined what they are based on my own experience.

As anyone coming out of a severe depression knows, it’s often a slow process of awakening. Yes, there are times when one day we can’t get out of bed and the next we are up in the morning and going about our business, but in Kore’s case she’s been severely traumatized so her healing is a process.

She wanders, as we so often wander in our healing process. Unlike Kore, we often work with therapists, medications, and Goddess, Goddess, Goddess to find our way. But for Kore, it’s when she puts her hands into the earth that her soul is really touched. She wakes up to the possibilities around her. For Kore, it’s time to move into the next phase of her being. In the strictest terms, she’s changing from a child into a woman, but for us it’s more likely to be our next stage of development.

So. The pomegranate. The Greeks are very vague on this. And conflicting — I’ve read she eats three, four, or six seeds. You know now that she spends a month in the Underworld for every seed, so on the surface this is a story of how long winter lasts, when Persephone is withdrawn from the earth. I chose six not for historical accuracy but to reflect my own spiritual path. Anyway. The big question, the question that none of the Greeks answer, is: why did Persephone eat those seeds? She’s a goddess — she eats ambrosia and drinks nectar. She doesn’t eat human food. So why does she eat them? Does she do it unconsciously or consciously?

I choose consciously. I like to see her as an agent of change in her own life. She chooses to eat the seeds because she knows what the consequences are. And she wants those consequences. She doesn’t just want to frolic and play anymore. She wants a vocation, she wants a path of her own, and she wants to seek the ways of justice and mercy as a queen. Oh, and she wants a groovy husband. You can skip that bit if that’s too Hearst syndrome for you.

So she eats the seeds and she takes on a new name. “Kore” means “the maiden” but “Persephone” means “to destroy” and “wise.” Quite a combination. For me, choosing a new name and a whole new life means Persephone is stepping into her power. I call on this myth when I’m going through a life change and I need the courage and the clarity of mind to release my overwhelming anxiety and depression and step into my power. It is only then that we see Persephone moving into adult life. For me, I want that agency. And the thing that touches me the most about this story is that Kore is violated in the most fundamental ways we can imagine, and yet from that place of violation she CREATES. That, to me, is women’s power. We can dig down within us, deeper than any pain, and find that deep core of inner knowing and create.

There are a few stories of Persephone in her role as queen but for me, the takeaway of Persephone’s life is that she now moves between the upper world and the Underworld effortlessly. She takes the newly dead by the hand and shows them to their place. She provides justice and mercy. And she knows days of sunshine and flowers, too. She moves through all the aspects of life smoothly, gently. She may have deeply disturbing days but she moves through them. She isn’t untouched by them, it’s not like she’ll never be depressed again, but she is now part of a cycle. For those of us who live with chronic mental illness, Persephone is a model of how to balance our moods and minds-bodies-spirits. She is a walker between the worlds, able to deal with all states of being. Persephone’s transformation in the underworld prepares her for ecstatic spirituality and shifting states of consciousness, as well as development of psychic abilities. Persephone becomes the wounded healer.

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My first spell

October 14, 2016

Almost 27 years ago when I was first introduced to Paganism, I was reluctant to practice magic. Magic seemed like wishful thinking and constructed “coincidences” to me. (The most famous definition of Pagan magic is Doreen Valiente’s “the art of changing consciousness at will,” but I prefer Oberon Zell’s “probability enhancement.”)

I decided to give it a (skeptical) try. I chose to work magic to attract more money into my life. I was living on my own and trying to raise enough money to pay for a year at college. I had some scholarships and loans but didn’t have enough to cover expenses. For effective magic, you need to feel an attachment to the outcome. Money was something I was definitely emotionally attached to!

I chose spells from a variety of traditions, both folk and contemporary. For instance, I wrapped a silver dollar in orange paper (orange is the color of attraction). This is an example of folk magic, where you “show the way” for the outcome you desire.

For a more contemporary approach, I did candle magic. I used several lit candles of different colors, each representing something different. One represented me, a green one represented money, gold represented riches and abundance, etc. Over the course of seven nights during the waxing moon I moved the green and gold candles closer to the one representing me. Eventually they burned together in one waxy lump.

I also tried an ancient form of magic: dance and trance. In my candlelit room, I danced in front of my altar for an hour at a time, repeating chants like “As the leaves fall from the trees, bring the money unto me.”

As much as I tried to maintain my rational skepticism, I couldn’t help but notice that I was changing consciousness, that I was raising power, and that I could clearly visualize an outcome where I had enough money and riches without harming anyone (an old Pagan guideline is “harm none”).

Far beyond what I was experiencing with magic were the results! Within two weeks of doing the various spells, I received the money that I needed to go back to school. First I received a new work-study job that paid more and was related to my major. Then I received another grant. A previously awarded scholarship amount was increased for an unexplained reason. My parents, with whom I had a complicated relationship, came through with a no-interest, no-strings-attached loan.

One of the oldest rules about magic is “be careful what you wish for.” In the same time period that I received all this good news, my parents came to visit me. They brought two large bags filled with cakes, candies, brownies, dessert mixes, and other sweets. They’d never done anything like that before and haven’t since. Even more odd, they’d brought a box of chocolates that my sister had bought for me. My sister had never bought anything for me before, much less my favorite candy!

I was puzzled by all this sugary largesse until I thought back to what I’d been asking for: money and *riches.* As every Pagan knows, you can place your requests however you like, but the universe will provide in ways it thinks are best! I received my wish—with the side effect of a larger waistline!


Miscellaneous Pagan prayers

November 23, 2014

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Encounter with a Baptist

November 2, 2014

This post will be offensive to some Christians. Take it or leave it. I am reminded of my friend Angie, who argues vociferously with people of different faiths when their beliefs result in objectionable actions, even though she’s on the board of the Parliament of World Religions, one of the world’s best interfaith organizations. We can critique each other’s faiths without hating each other.

Last week I went to an event sponsored by the Center for Inquiry that featured a Baptist youth pastor. I wasn’t able to stay for the whole time but a couple things stuck out.

He read from an online list of Things Baptists Believe and one of them is that all humans are born sinners. And the only way they get to Heaven is through accepting Jesus as their personal lord and savior—good works don’t count.

This is whacked. I think it was Joseph Campbell who pointed out this example that settled the former issue for me: He said that if two people are standing on the edge of a cliff and one starts to fall, the other will instinctively reach out and try to save the first. It’s an instinct, not a rational decision. That, to me, indicates we are fundamentally good.

However! It doesn’t take much to change our behavior. Riane Eisler writes at length about how competition over scarce resources leads to patriarchy, hierarchy, and war. She argues that humans were originally cooperative and community-minded until we abused the environment and began to compete. I don’t know that it’s that simple (was there ever a Golden Matriarchal Age?) but the general idea seems to hold up.

The whole idea of good works not counting was of course a key element of the Protestant Reformation and feelings run deep on that issue. Personally, I think it’s insane. What kind of god would create a race of beings only to make it impossible for the vast majority of them to come to him after death? A sick and twisted god, that’s what. And I have no idea why someone would choose to worship him. You can’t say “God is love” and square that with “Everyone who believes something different from Baptists is going to Hell.”

As much as atheists slam the Bible (and let’s face it, there’s a lot to slam), I don’t blame The Book. I hold people responsible. It’s been my experience that people have their own points of view based on nature and nurture, and then they look to religion to buttress those opinions. Relatively few people belong to a religion that encourages them to be radically different. Most people choose to stay inside their comfort zone. It’s my belief that narrow-minded bigots will find evidence in the Bible to reinforce their point of view, just as the most compassionate Christians will. It’s not the book that’s the problem, it’s the people relying on it as justification for pre-existing beliefs.

Before I left I asked him about women’s roles within the church. He said women are just as good as men (how enlightened!) and can take on every role except—wait for it—head pastor. Of course.

According to him, there is a core set of beliefs that make you a Baptist. If you don’t believe them, you’re not a Baptist. But there are grey areas where you can be subject to “persuasion.” Since Baptist churches are relatively autonomous, they can have different views on a variety of issues and still remain Baptists.

So I asked him what his personal view of women was. He said he hadn’t done enough study of it but he could be brought to the view that women should be allowed to be head pastors. But that’s as far as it goes. He wouldn’t be able to persuade anyone else to his point of view and he ultimately wouldn’t be considered a Baptist.

What’s the point of that? Why belong to a church which actively discriminates and oppresses, especially when you disagree with that position? I suspect it’s because he doesn’t feel strongly enough about the issue to let it jeopardize his role in the church. He might feel differently if his wife wanted to be head pastor. That might make it more immediate and worth fighting for. But I have to wonder about the morality of the situation.

On a side note, that part of the discussion made me realize that there are more priestesses than priests in Paganism and we may be the only religion on the planet where that’s the case. It’s not that men are forbidden from becoming priests. There are more women than men in Paganism in general and the emphasis on the Goddess draws many women into leadership positions. Add to that the related women’s spirituality movement and you’ve got an awful lot of women Drawing Down the Moon. It would be completely bizarre to me to be part of a ritual where there is only a priest. That’s how far I’ve come from my Catholic upbringing. I love the affirmation women have within the movement and the encouragement all women receive to become their best selves. And of course, Pagan men are some of the best men on the planet, in part because many of them revere the Goddess. They are comfortable with their masculinity because they have explored the Divine Feminine. They are open, funny, tender, strong, loving, and not afraid to wear sarongs. 😉

The thing that made me sad about the Baptist thang was the realization that one of my brothers believes pretty much everything the Baptist said. Many years ago my brother and I engaged in a long email conversation about religion because he said he wanted to understand me better. It ended rather abruptly when he finally confessed his real purpose was to convert me back to Christianity. I was furious. It still pisses me off. It’s such a denial of my basic human rights.

When he was going into the hospital to get a brain tumor operated on, I asked him what time the surgery was going to be so I could light a candle. No prayers, no incantations, no magic, just a candle. And he told me he didn’t want it. He didn’t want me involved at all. I told one of my sisters (who was Catholic) and she was so enraged that she immediately emailed him and asked him for the time of the surgery so she could light a candle. He told her.

Sometimes I think about what will happen when he or his wife dies, or if I ever get married. Would I be allowed to go to his funeral? Would he come to my wedding? Even though I’ve explained in every way I can that I don’t worship Satan (I don’t even believe in Satan—he’s a Christian construct, not Pagan, and I don’t believe in Christianity), because I’m not a Christian, I am—what—a leper? Contagious? Disgusting? Evil? Certainly not worthy of his respect and love.

Now, my brother happens to be one of the most upright people I know, but his religion prevents him from expressing his love in any other way than the patronizing “I will show you Christ’s love and that will make you love him” way. Ugh! It hurts me to think I may be excluded from his life, or he will exclude himself from mine, because his supposedly superior religion prevents him from simply living with difference.

To me, the sign of a useful religion is whether it pushes you to be a better person. And by “better,” I don’t mean “please follow these arbitrary rules.” I mean becoming more compassionate, more honorable, more respectful, more accepting of difference. When people are committed to pushing their boundaries and becoming their best selves, we not only get the personal benefit of one-on-one interaction, we also get the social benefit of a more civil society. It’s in the interest of the state to encourage respect and embrace difference. I’m not suggesting the state should endorse religion—far from it—but I do think there are core principles that apply in both secular and religious contexts.

Friday night was the anniversary of my initiation into the Craft. Every year I read the instructions I wrote way back in 1991 and they still hold true. They are a reminder to me to “hold pure, then, your greatest ideal—strive ever towards it.” I don’t usually get there, but the journey is worth it. And as much as I disagree with some of the points the Baptist made, I thoroughly uphold his right to believe them. I don’t think they’re particularly useful beliefs, but I support religious freedom. Just because it mystifies me doesn’t mean it should be suppressed.

When I used to do public education about Paganism, I likened it to a potluck. There are all these dishes on the table, each representing a different belief or practice, and we go around, looking closely, asking questions, poking and prodding. If we see a dish that looks interesting, we take a little bit. If we like it, we go back and take a lot of it. And if we see something we don’t like, we leave it where it is. We don’t dash it to the floor in a fit of righteous pique. We leave it there because others might like it. Works for them, doesn’t work for me. No biggie. We focus instead on enjoying the party. 🙂


AREN interview and tepid Paganism

March 22, 2014

I recently had the honor of being interviewed for the lead story in the Alternative Religions Education Network’s ACTION newsletter. In it I blather on about the highlights of my most active period in the Pagan movement, from the mid-90s to the mid-00s. Christopher Blackwell, the kind and attentive editor, is hoping that others can learn from my experiences in organizing in the national sphere.

But today I finished reading Ancient Wisdom: Earth Traditions in the 21st Century by Vivianne and Christopher Crowley and I am reminded of what has always bothered me about contemporary Paganism: its tepid nature.

Constructing the ritual for the Summit was a wonderful intrafaith adventure, combining Ásatrú, Druid, and Craft elements. But the heart of the ritual just said, “Cairril waxes poetic” in the script. I knew I could summon up something dramatic (it is, after all, my nature), but I told the Goddess, “Only if it’s real. Only if I’m truly Called.”

Well, I got Called. Big time. I channeled the Goddess and went around the circle of 40 or so people and gave an individual blessing to each one. I used water from the communal cauldron (everyone had brought water from their homes to contribute, I can’t remember which tradition this drew on but it was lovely) and signed everyone there. I think I sang most of the time, but for certain people there was a specific message from the Goddess for me to give. The messages didn’t make sense to me but I trusted the recipients would understand. The song was one of the chants that came to me in private ritual space: “I stepped into cauldron waters / I stepped into cauldron waters / I heard Her calling out my name / And I felt my self reborn / And I found my self reborn.” (This is one of my favorite chants, since it switches meter from 7 to 4—thank you, Universe!) You could feel the intense power in the room. We were all blessed by it. Euphoric afterwards. Several people were blown away. But later, I thought, “Why? Why was that so unusual?”

I am a solitary, mostly by choice, so I don’t know how the majority of Pagan rituals go in the wider movement, especially outside the Craft. But when I read Drawing Down the Moon, Margot stated in no uncertain terms that Witches draw down the Moon! It’s what we do. Ecstatic trance. C’mon, people. Get on board here.

I generally eschew group ritual for two reasons: 1) I don’t like sublimating my desires/urges to groupthink and 2) almost every group Pagan ritual I’ve been to has been lame. Bless the Unitarians, but give me snake-handling Pentecostals any day when it comes to conjuring up some power. A local CUUPS rit I attended a couple years ago was rocked when I belted out my chant to Call the Earth. It’s an Earth chant. It’s loud. It calls the Earth. Come ON. Nobody knew what to do with it.

So yeah, I finished up Ancient Wisdom today, and it’s a survey of indigenous traditions from around the world, and the difference between the whole book and the two-page “Here’s your takeaway” conclusion was head-whipping. There I am, burbling along through circumcision, ritual scarification, tattooing, weather witching, curse-lifting, fired longships and the like, and then the last two pages talk about canceling Third World debt and considering our impact on the Earth. What are we, Presbyterians??

I used to be pretty rigid about ritual when I first started out but a kitchen Witch showed me some easy ways to weave my spirituality into my everyday life. So now when I cast a Circle, I may confine it to my temple space or I may include the kitchen and bathroom in case I want a break. No biggie. It’s all of a piece. When I finished boiling my eggs for my Equinox ritual, I poured the remaining water around the foundation of my house to ward off lightning. I like the books of Valerie Worth that are filled with charms like “How to Become Invisible”—I mean, this is the shit, right?

I am struggling through The Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual by Alexei Kondratiev. He starts with this breathtaking overview of Celtic history but then he turns into this haranguing harpy with serious issues with imperialist powers. He insists that you’re not practicing a proper Celtic path if you’re not speaking a Celtic tongue. Well, that lets out most of us. How many people have the resources to track down teachers and find a community to speak with? Anyway, today I read his outline of a Samhain ritual and I was all, “Where’s the yelling?” We’re talking about the Celts, right? The definition of a passionate people. So where is the juice?

Maybe I’m just not hooked up to the right resources (highly likely). But I’ve been trying over the last year to ease my way back into the national movement and I just can’t find my place. Recently The Wild Hunt did an article on the theme of sacrifice and I just could not get in. The biggest problem is that these people actually believe in Gods and Goddesses. I don’t. I’m an atheist Pagan, a minority within a minority. I am comfortable saying, “There’s more going on than five senses can account for,” but I’m not going to talk about entering into transactions with mythical beings.

I checked into several of the big name Pagan magazines but the one that sticks out in my mind did its most recent issue on herbs. Still?? Isn’t this where I left off ten years ago? Not that herbcraft isn’t Witchcraft, it is definitely within the tradition, but I just pictured all these “Use mugwort to polish your crystal ball” articles.

My problem is I have a backlog of books I was sent when I was head of PEN and we used to do book reviews. No, actually, my problem is I don’t have any good recommendations for resources that will speak to me. I looked through Llewellyn’s catalogue last week but it still looked like it was catering to the beginner Pagan (it’s been nearly 10 years since I’ve looked at their stuff). Maybe that’s where the money is. Maybe once you get into more advanced practices you move beyond what books can tell you. But that can’t be right—other religions have advanced texts, why can’t we?

To my dismay, I have had to look to secular sources for ideas that feed into my evolving Craft. Like books on comparative religions. Interesting, occasionally inspiring, but often intellectual and safe.

I want Pagan sources that give me ideas for how to mainline pure joy, power, grief, tranquility, and song. Push me deeper. Stretch me. Help me become ever more a Witch, with a rich skill set to draw upon to serve my community.

Anyone want to teach me how to ride lightning?


Which Witch?

October 27, 2013

On a jaunt to a community festival, goddessdaughter #1 turned to me and said, “I feel comfortable with you.” She’s 10. A warm sensation started in my stomach and moved outward. “Mama’s always online buying shoes and Papa’s always busy,” she continued. I know this is not the case but I understood what she meant: When I’m with her, I’m with her, 100%. She is part of an extraordinarily close-knit family but somehow I’ve made my way into her heart. In the midst of the heartache surrounding one of my nieces, I feel like at least in this one small way I must be doing something right.

I take my girls every Friday to Banneker or a park or my house and we spend about two hours together. Mostly they play together, but if we’re at the park goddessdaughter #1 will talk to me for half an hour while I push her on the swings while goddessdaughter #2 (age 7) makes “salads” of weeds and mulch and flowers. I’ve been teaching them baseball with a wiffleball bat and a large plastic ball and they are improving. We just started running bases and they are thrilled with that.

When A and J asked me to stand goddessmother the first time, I told them I would be there for their daughter 100%—as long as they let me. We had a blessing for each of the girls at the Unitarian Universalist church where I swore to “teach her to love the ways of justice.” I think of that often, such as when I encourage them to share or when I demand that they stop fighting.

I have always been completely open as a Witch with the girls, and we have a small altar for them in my temple. Goddessdaughter #2 has recently become fascinated with my path and wants to know how to be a wizard. I gave her some gemstones for her birthday, listing the magical property of each. Both girls have gone through phases of telling their friends that I am a Witch, with the usual wide variety of responses. Neither one quite understands the concept of religion yet but they know I am a “good Witch.”

Friday was awful. When I entered their house, goddessdaughter #1 was wearing a T-shirt that said, “Don’t be a witch.” It had a green background and a black silhouette of a caricatured witch that was clearly meant to look like the Wicked Witch of the West. I understood at once that it was the equivalent of “Don’t be a bitch,” but it still took my breath away. I was overcome. I was so offended.

I pointed at her shirt and asked, “What’s this?” She could tell by my expression that I was upset and she crossed her arms over her chest and looked away guiltily. A stepped in with her best “soothing” voice and said she had bought it and thought it was cute. It didn’t mean anything. By this time my goddessdaughter had fled the kitchen for her room. I turned to A and said, “You wouldn’t have a T-shirt saying, ‘Don’t be a Christian.'” She was still in soothe mode and just said, “Okay.” My goddessdaughter shortly re-entered with a shirt saying, “Witch way to the candy?” I laughed and gave her a hug, but I was still in turmoil. In fact, I’m still in turmoil.

In one of the Dune books, Frank Herbert wrote, “He knows me so well, but I despair of his ever understanding me.” That’s how I feel about A. She has known me for over 20 years, all that time as a Witch, and she has even self-identified as Pagan. She knows that I founded a national non-profit for educating the public about Paganism and ran it for almost 10 years. She knows me. Doesn’t she?

What could she possibly have been thinking when she bought that shirt? She says she thinks of me as a sister but it seems she doesn’t think of me at all. I was deeply offended by the shirt, not only for myself, but for my people. Do I really need to explain to her that Witchcraft is a religion?

A and J are ambivalent about my path. They were adamant that I not teach the girls anything along the lines of natural magic several years ago. Recently A told me she didn’t want me to teach them how to cast a Circle. But she’s fine with their learning “metaphysical” properties. I don’t know how to interpret that. I feel like they want all the good things I can bring to their children, just without the feminism and the Witchcraft. But there is no me without feminism and especially the Craft. When I follow down the strands of my identity, the things that make me me, I find at my core singing and the Craft, twisting together in a beautiful DNA strand. They can’t be separated from who I am. That’s terribly inconvenient for parents with middle class values. But it’s who I am. It’s who they asked to be goddessmother—twice.

They love that I’m involved with the girls’ lives, that the girls love me, that they get alone time when I take the girls on our jaunts. They invite me for Thanksgiving and Christmas. But, even though the girls’ grandmother takes them to church on Christmas Eve, I am not allowed to take them to the local synagogue or mosque to expose them to different faiths. And I’m their goddessmother. If not I, then who?

The whole reason we have an altar for the girls at my house is because A lost the gift I gave to goddessdaughter #1 at her blessingway. She lost it. But she was able to hang onto the Buddhist prayer flags given by my goddessdaughter’s godfather. I knew that if I wanted to maintain any kind of spiritual relationship with the girls, I would have to safeguard it myself.

I have always walked Between the Worlds. Even when I was a good Catholic girl playing Maria in The Sound of Music, I was set apart a little from others. It is a constant tension in my life. It is a spiritual truth which I have meditated deeply on for years and which I hope to come to peace with before I die. But it’s just so hard to be who I am, to be admired for who I am, and yet to have my identity denied. Like when my family says a Christian prayer at every mealtime and ignores the fact that I am not of their faith. We’re an alcoholic family, so it’s easy to ignore the elephant in the living room, but it still hurts. I’ve been on this path for nearly 25 years and these people who are so involved in my life refuse to acknowledge it. They don’t want me to be fully myself because it makes them uncomfortable. And I feel wedged into an ill-fitting place because I can’t be what they want and what I want at the same time.

“I feel comfortable with you.” Which me?


10 Tips for Large Group Rituals

May 25, 2013

This is the world’s shortest post: I just want to link to this excellent blog post on constructing/running large group rituals. Great tips. Well done!