Bealtaine invocations and prayers

May 5, 2013

Every sabbat (there are 8 per year) I pull out a folder full of scripts for rituals I’ve written over the years. When I first began practicing Paganism, I wrote a new script for every ritual. Now I re-use bits of past scripts and do the rest of the ritual extemporaneously, since I’ve internalized so much of the inner meaning of each sabbat.

This Bealtaine (May Day, which according to Celtic tradition should be celebrated the night of 30 April but which I always celebrate on the 1st) I went back to 1999 for inspiration. Bealtaine is a joyous sabbat, celebrating the first day of Summer and the ripening of the Goddess and the God. This year it was absolutely gorgeous, with blue skies, temperatures in the high ’70s, and my gardens bursting with new life.

I always begin in darkness and silence, facing the North. North is the direction of the element of Earth, the home of the ancestors, and the “womb and tomb” of life. I briefly meditate on all which has brought me to the present place and time and set in stillness to prepare myself to transition Between the Worlds.

I then light sandalwood incense and the main candle on my altar while saying the following prayer, which comes from Vivianne Crowley’s Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Age (which is so well-used that the binding is completely broken and the pages keep falling out):

Let me be at one within myself
At one to celebrate the power
The power which moves the universe.
For behold! The lords of light have set their stars upon the heavens
The Earth spins and the Moon holds her course.
I will walk proudly and hold my head high
For the Sky is my father
And the Earth my mother
And I am a child of the Gods.

Then my own prayer:

Blessed and gracious ones, on this night do I bring to you my mind, my body, and my spirit!

I then light a candle and place it in each Quarter and invite the elements. Different Pagans use different systems but I honor the North first (“from you we come, unto you we return”) and then place the candle in the appropriate Quarter. Each Quarter corresponds to an element and a patron goddess.

INVOCATION OF THE EAST

Here do I bring light and Air in at the East, realm of Arianrhod. Arianrhod and all beings of your realm, all beings of Air, I welcome you to my Circle this night. Lend your swift voices to my growing song, send your fleet messengers ahead that my ravens know the course. Open my eyes, open my heart—all is awareness, all is choice, all is flow. Beings of Air, I welcome you in proud reverence here.

INVOCATION OF THE SOUTH

Here do I bring light and Fire in at the South, realm of Brighid. Brighid and all beings of your realm, all beings of Fire, I welcome you to my Circle this night. Light my way this night to awareness and understanding; add strength to my commitment to manifest my passions. Let my heart remember what it means to dream and let my spirit take flight! This is the time of rebirth, as sure as the buds on the trees and the sunny faces of the daffodils. Give me faith in my fire. Beings of Fire and passion, I welcome you in proud reverence here.

INVOCATION OF THE WEST

Here do I bring light and Water in at the West, realm of Rhiannon. Rhiannon and all beings of your realm, all beings of Water, I welcome you to my Circle this night. Dearest mother, open my heart, still my brain, let me hear your rhythmic and persistent tones. Let the sea awaken me, let the waves wash me clean, let the seagulls crown my joyful head. Seahorses and lily pads, treasure and sweet dominion—flow, flow in sacred sexuality, let music flow in the briny waves, let all of us dance in the graceful, lilting flow. Great Goddess, Mother Rhiannon, it is time for rebirth. From you our race emerged, cold and naked, searching for some greater truth. Yet still we long for you. Help me bridge the worlds of Earth and Water, Fire and Air—make me whole and unique, in love and in tune with the song of living. Give me flow, give me flow, let me ride the waves in inner stillness, let there be room for musings and whispered confidences and secret self-assurance. Great Mother, let your waters heal and sanctify me, your priestess of lifeanddeath. I am on the path. I welcome you in holy reverence here.

INVOCATION OF THE NORTH

Here do I bring light and Earth in at the North, realm of Cerridwen. Cerridwen and all beings of your realm, all beings of Earth, you know the enduring bonds of relationship. You know the ties of kith and kin. Great gods of forgotten ancestors, open the veil which shrouds my mind. Free my mind, heart, and body from the ravages of my history. It is time to be made anew, to carry seeds to fruition, to plant seeds anew. It is a new day, a new time, a new me. Give me the Sight—give me the breath, the clarity I need to make my dreams come true. I welcome you in blessed reverence here.

CAST THE CIRCLE

Casting the Circle can be done in a variety of ways, using a tool such as an athame, sword, or feather, or simply using your body. For Bealtaine, I used my body to cast a full sphere of water surrounded by Fire. I then said my traditional prayer, which may or may not be original (it’s hard to tell after almost 25 years!):

This Circle is sealed, and all within are free to glorify the Lady and the Lord, whom we adore.

I always follow this with a personal prayer suitable to that particular ritual’s needs, drawing on the mythological, psychic, and psychological themes of the sabbat.

After that, it’s anybody’s guess. My rituals vary year to year, sabbat to sabbat. There are a few things I like to do for Bealtaine. From Crowley’s book:

THE ARADIA CHARGE

I am Aradia
Daughter of the sea
And daughter of the wind
Daughter of the Sun
And daughter of the Moon
Daughter of dawn
And daughter of sunset
Daughter of night
And daughter of the mountains

And I have sung the song of the sea
And I have listened to the sighing of the wind
I have heard the hidden secrets of the Sun
And I have drunk of the tears of the Moon
I have seen the beauty of the dawn
And the sorrow of the sunset
I have lain ‘neath the darkest dark of the night
And I have beheld the might of the mountains

For I am stronger than the sea
And freer than the wind
I am brighter than the Sun
And more changing than the Moon
I am the hope of the dawn
And the peace of the sunset
I am more mysterious than night
And older than the mountains
Older than time itself
For I am she who was
And who will be
For I am Aradia.

SPRING GODDESS CHARGE

Hear then the words of Diana the Moon
The Bright Virgin
Changing but unchanging
My mystery is unanswerable
But solve ye that mystery
My nature is unknowable
But strive to understand me
Darkness and light are met within me
I flee from thee, but lure thee on
I seek for thee, but hide my face
I speak to thee, but my words are silent

I use the latter prayer at both Vernal Equinox and Bealtaine because I love it so much. It explores a great mystery: How can you solve a mystery which is unanswerable? How can you catch the Moon, which ever flees from you? I am caught up in the beauty and power of Diana, goddess of the hunt, fleet-footed and free in the greenwood.

I also have fun with Robin Goodfellow, adapted from Ben Jonson:

From Oberon, in Fairieland,
The king of ghosts and shadows there,
Mad Robin I, at his command,
Am sent to view the night-sports here.
What revel rout
Is kept about,
In every corner where I go,

I’ll oversee
And merry be,
And make good sport, with ho ho ho!

More swift than lightning can I fly
About this airy world and soon
In a minute’s space, I descry
Each thing that’s done beneath the Moon.
There’s not a hag
Or ghost shall wag,
Or cry, “‘Ware Goblins!” where I go,
But Robin I
Their feats will spy,
And send them home, with ho ho ho!

Whene’er such wanderers I meet,
As from their night-sports they trudge home,
With counterfeiting voice I greet
And call them on, with me to roam
Through woods, through lakes,
Through bogs, through brakes;
Or else, unseen, with them I go, 
All in the nick
To play some trick
And frolic it, with ho ho ho!

Sometimes I meet them like a man;
Sometimes an ox, sometimes a hound;
And to a horse I turn me can;
Top trip and trot about them round.
But if, to ride,
My back they stride,
More swift than wind away I go,
O’er hedge and lands,
Through pools and plants
I whirry, laughing, ho ho ho!

This is obviously based on Puck from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I love how it conjures up a mischievous spirit. Bealtaine is on the opposite side of the Wheel of the Year from Oidche Samhna (Samhain/Halloween), the night when the Veil Between the Worlds is at its thinnest and all kinds of spirits walk the roads. Puck is a nice reflection of that.

At some point I also sing the lovely tune The Young May Moon (this is a slightly different version from the one I sing but gives you the idea). My version was collected from England in the late eighteen hundreds. The lyrics are definitely from that time but the tune may be older, who knows.

Bealtaine is a good time to check in on how I’m doing with my reading from Oidche Samhna. That’s the in-depth (3-hour) tarot reading I do with Catlín Matthews’ Celtic Book of the Dead. It’s my guide for the spiritual year. This year is all about finding my true vocation, deepening my connection to the Otherworld, and relying on that connection to strengthen me as I travel through the Sea of Mists, unsure of my destination.

As with any ritual, I may include trance work, ecstatic dance, meditations, spirit journeys, prayers, and magic. But I always ground with “Cakes and Ale,” the traditional feast at the end of the Witch’s ritual. Of course, my “cakes” are a chocolate chip cookie from Butch’s (so delicious, I just can’t even describe) and a lovely glass of milk. The prayers that go with them are something like:

I know that every seed is a record of times past and a promise of what’s to come. Thank you for this gift of the Earth and may I live out its promise in love and courage.

Just as the grape undergoes change to become wine, and that wine may bring the enchantment of the divine realms or the stupor of the baser ones, so do I recognize that all rise or fall according to their talents and their strength of will. Thank you for this gift of Earth and may I live out its potential in courage and grace.

I always put aside some of the Cakes and Ale for the Little Folk (I toss it outside afterwards with the quick prayer, “Back at ya, Goddess”) and then tuck in. I often feel the spirits of those I’ve invited flitting around, chatting and gnoshing along with me.

I close with prayers and by saying thank you and good-bye to each Quarter, knowing that I carry the promise of each in my bodymindspirit always. I open the Circle and then say,

The Circle is open, but never broken. Love is the law and love is the bond. May I have a straight spine, a clear mind, and a heart filled with love and with joy. Blessed Be!

I am usually left with a great sense of well-being, clarity, and peace at the end of ritual, and often have a lesson or two to take with me onto my path to the next sabbat.

I share the above resources freely; adapt as you will for your purposes (for the good of all, may it harm none). Blessed Be.

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Feminism by any other name

March 17, 2013

I recently watched the excellent PBS documentary Makers on second-wave feminism and the rise of the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s. It was a refresher of a women’s studies class I took at IU in the early ’90s, but with some somewhat controversial updates from the 1980s and beyond.

I was raised as a conservative Catholic, but with a rebel streak. After a five-year-old cousin died when I was 14 or 15, I took comfort in my relationship with the Virgin Mary. (She was also who I turned to when I had cramps—what would Jesus know about cramps?) I strove to be what was considered to be the model woman in the Church: meek, mild, submissive to God’s will, and every other thing I was never going to be.

I was virulently anti-abortion, having no clue what challenges a pregnant woman faces. I saw abortion as murder, plain and simple, and rejected it even in cases of rape, incest, or the life of the mother. If you got pregnant and didn’t want the child, you carried it to term and gave it up for adoption. Case closed. I gave no thought to the idea of women’s being forced by the state to carry fetuses to term, nor did I consider the agony women would go through carrying a rapist’s or worse, a relative’s child. Everything was simple.

On the other hand, when the U.S. Catholic bishops published an encyclical against nuclear war, I became passionately anti-nuke. Through my relationships with leftist friends, I became familiar with Women and Children First in Chicago, read liberal manifestos, and wrote letters to Congressmen (yes, they were all men) to protest the nuclear arms race. I came to political consciousness during the Carter/Reagan race and was convinced Reagan was going to press the button. I had many nightmares about nuclear war and once I saw the Church was against it, I wholeheartedly supported that view.

When I was 17 or 18 I read a pamphlet at church published by a society dedicated to one of the Mary cults—probably Fatima. It talked about how Mary told the children that women should dress modestly, with sleeves no shorter than 3/4 length. It would be years before it would occur to me how strange it was that Mary was so specific about fashion advice, but at the time I just felt a terrible sinking feeling. I was athletic in high school as well as a theatre geek and regularly wore short-sleeved shirts. It was the ’80s and mini-skirts were in. I was so sad to realize I would never be good enough. I would never be able to be fully a women in the eyes of the Church. It was devastating.

I burbled along my merry way, combining leftist and anarchist beliefs (anti-apartheid, anti-CIA) with this harsh conservative/libertarian view that all things could be reduced to black and white and there was one right way and one wrong way and I knew what was what, amen. If black people were discriminated against, they should sue. If women were denied promotion in the workplace, they should sue or leave. Simple. Black and white.

In the late ’80s I worked at McDonald’s and met one of the most pivotal people in my life: Tammy Taysom. She was a feminist Mormon, two things I’d not come into deep contact with before. And two things I had a hard time reconciling in one being. She was in favor of polygamy, not for anything to do with men, but to get rid of men. She wanted a man to have babies with, but then she thought the man should go away or even die (of natural causes) so she could hang out with his other wives and they could all raise the children together. She saw this as a liberating, positive, supportive environment for women, free from the oppressive influence of men. She blew my mind.

Tammy and I would have raging philosophical arguments over the grills in the back of the restaurant, slinging words as fast as burgers. At one point one of the managers turned to look at me and asked, “What are you doing here?” I was a little taken aback but told him the truth: “All I have is a high school education.” He shook his head. “No. What are you doing here?” I knew he meant that, with my intellect and erudition, I should be out in the world someplace. But I just repeated with more emphasis, “All I have is a high school education.” I had tried to find other jobs, but no one wanted me.

Tammy held her own in our arguments, which was impressive. I learned from my father at an early age how to talk circles around someone even when I didn’t know what I was talking about. I knew how to use language to confuse logic. But she cut right to the chase and challenged my deeply held beliefs. And finally it came down to it: she dared me to take a women’s studies class. And she would take it with me. Since I was finally going back to school that fall, I took her dare, smug in my belief that I would prove her arguments wrong.

For the first few weeks, I hard-headedly held my own. For every example they presented, I had a pat answer: women should put up or shut up. What I hadn’t realized was how much contempt I had for women. I hated being a woman.

When I was about four or five I came to that crossroads that all children come to, when they decide who they’re going to be. In my case, I had a mother and a father to choose from. My dad was the oppressor. My mom was the victim. For me, it was a no-brainer. I chose to be my dad, so I could be free to do whatever I wanted. Even then, I was intrigued by power.

What I didn’t realized at the time (of course, my brain had barely developed by then) was that being powerful as a man meant being contemptuous of women. I spent many, many years of my life trying to prove that I was good enough to be an honorary man, but the bottom line was that I was a prisoner of my biology. I would always be betrayed by my femaleness. Like on that day reading about Fatima, I realized I would never make the cut. And I hated myself for it.

Back to the women’s studies class! What cut through all my philosophical schizophrenia was the section on rape. I remember lying on the couch in my apartment, highlighting passages in a variety of texts. The evidence just piled on and piled on. Three out of four women sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. Rape as violence, not as sex. The most dangerous place for a woman to be was in the home of someone she loved.

I put down the books and thought about my own life. I realized that almost every woman I knew, including myself, had been sexually abused at some point in her life. I began to cry, a deep, wounded cry, whispering, “What did we do? What did we do?” What could women have possibly done to deserve this epidemic of sexual violence? How could I possibly explain it away case by case when it was so widespread? The answer was right there: it wasn’t a case by case issue—it was a society-wide threat. It was rooted in a hatred and fear of women that was so pervasive that virtually no woman was safe.

The walls came tumbling down. My eyes were open to systemic problems of race, class, and gender. I could see patterns that I was blind to before. And since I was now a Pagan instead of a Catholic, it all fit into a deep, seamless stream of morality. I knew where I stood and why I stood there. And I knew that by rising up and taking that stand, I was making a difference. Goddess bless Tammy Taysom.

Once I was on the train, there was no getting off. I read everything I could find on oppressive systems, whether against people or the environment. I worked at a feminist magazine. I attended workshops and festivals. I joined mass protests in DC and NYC. And I read My Mother, Myself, the first time I’d ever bothered to examine my relationship with my mother rather than my father. I saw my contempt for her and for all women, and especially for myself, and I got rid of it. I embraced myself as a woman and even began to be thankful for it. I grew into the belief I still hold today: it’s easier to be a whole human being in this society if you are a woman. Sexism = bondage not just for women, but for men. Since women are marginalized, they can get away with drumming circles and consciousness raising and generally doing whatever under-the-radar things they want to do because they are, after all, just women. But men are held to a more rigid standard. Women can wear men’s clothes, for instance, but men can’t wear women’s. If they embrace their feelings, they are pounced on (remember Robert Bly?).

The situation is much more complex than that, and has changed since the Clinton presidency when he would cry at the drop of a hat, but there are still some threads of truth there. In some traditional societies, when women would menstruate, they’d be sent to moon lodges or other dark spaces in order not to “contaminate” the men with their mysterious and powerful (“dirty”) menstrual blood. But Tammy and I laughed at the idea and said, “Yeah, yeah, we’re unclean, we’re unclean, now who’s bringing the chocolate?” If women were really held in such low esteem, it’s possible they looked forward to getting away from stupid men and associating with equals in moon lodges.

Recently I attended a screening of Things We Don’t Talk About: Women’s Stories from the Red Tent. It’s a movement inspired by the book The Red Tent, a novel which posited how women came together during their menstrual cycles. In the film, women join in circles small and large to tell their stories. Some are funny, most are sad, but all lead the women to feeling more empowered. They rise up and say, “I am beautiful, I am loved, and I deserve to be here.”

That’s all well and good, but why in the world are we still saying this 40 years after the women’s liberation movement began? (We’ve circled round to Makers, folks.) In the ’70s, women came together in consciousness raising groups and found to their surprise that others had similar experiences. And then they changed their lives. They didn’t just keep it for other women. They took it home and renegotiated their marriages. Or they left their marriages. They joined the movement and marched in the streets, carried signs, volunteered for causes, worked at feminist magazines, and fought for the Equal Rights Amendment. The personal was political. They changed everything, from the bedroom to the boardroom.

According to Makers, everything shifted when the women’s movement openly embraced lesbians and when Phyllis Schlafly came on the scene. Schlafly mobilized conservative women against liberals and militants. And the country swung with her, electing our chief adult child of an alcoholic, Ronald Reagan.

In Makers, they cite a major change in the women’s movement at this time with the rise of Madonna. In the view of the producers, Madonna embodied the new post-feminist woman, who was “sexually confident.” There were no close-ups of her famous “Boy Toy” belt buckle, though, which seems to put the lie to that point of view.

Madonna is an interesting figure because she used sexism to make a point. I remember watching a video of her in an art criticism class. She was walking down a runway, wearing a short coat or vest. When she got to the end of the runway, she opened her coat to reveal her naked breasts. A man in the audience actually leapt like a crazy man and was practically frothing at the mouth in glee. Who had the power in that situation?

If you’ve ever seen Madonna, you’d be hard-pressed to say that she’s been exploited, but I think it’s easier to see the trajectory with women entertainers who’ve come after her. Sexism is still so ingrained in our culture that women embrace their objectification. Are they really “sexually confident”? Or are they just doing what male producers say is necessary to get ahead? Considering the lack of analysis that goes into women’s roles these days, I say it’s the latter.

As I write this, there’s a furor over the book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. She is the daughter of privilege and not coincidentally a mover and shaker in Silicon Valley. Her book takes on the tedious question of whether women can have it all. Part of her message is that women don’t “lean in”—they choose not to lead. Aside from the fact that her message doesn’t relate to the experiences of poor and working class women, it seems to ignore the fact that women are socialized not to lead. STILL. It starts in grade school and continues throughout our lives.

I am so sick of the question, “Can women have it all?” Why doesn’t anyone ever ask, “Can men have it all?” The assumption is that men do have everything they need. If that means they have the best jobs and make the most money, I think that’s a pretty piss-poor definition of “all.” For women, of course, it means, “Can women have family and a career?” The answer is yes, obviously, yes, but only if we dramatically alter society.

In my view, it takes at least five adults to raise a child. In tribal societies, this is no problem. But in a capitalist society that encourages “nuclear” as the definition of “family” so that “human capital” can be easily moved to wherever the jobs are, we’re screwed. Add to that that men still aren’t pulling their weight when it comes to family and household chores, and you’ve got women as second-class citizens. STILL. So rather than blame women for still not doing enough, let’s take a big-picture view and ask what institutional blocks are in place that hold women back and which give men privileges.

Remember the Red Tent film? Earlier in this rant? What struck me was how we still have this dynamic of women coming together and finding some sort of power—and yet how it completely lacks a political component. Nowhere was sexism mentioned. Everything was seen in personal terms. Case by case. They missed the whole component of how societal pressures keep women from demanding complete power (here I mean power-from-within and power-with, not power-over (see Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance)). And they never examined what they could do once they stood up and declared themselves beautiful. Beautiful? Really? That’s it? Now, having gone through the process myself, I know that’s a key milestone to an experience as a woman, but is that really all we’re going for? Accepting ourselves for how we look? What about what we want?

It blows my MIND that, 40 years after the women’s liberation movement began, women are still coming to this process as newbies. And they will continue to do so as long as they remain ignorant of sexism as a systemic problem.

This week the Newshour reported on sexual assaults in the military. Of nearly 4,000 reported cases of assault last year, only 191 resulted in convictions. 191! And since under-reporting is so common, they estimate that the incidents of assault are actually closer to 19,000. This is not a case of women wearing dresses that are too short or being drunk or saying no when they mean yes or any of the zillions of other victim-blaming reasons given to make sure we treat each case as separate and unique. This is a violent culture. The problem is systemic. It cannot be fixed by one woman suing the military. It will take a top-to-bottom, bottom-to-top sea change in attitudes that see women as “less than.”

I remember in the 1990s when I was working with the leaders of all the main national Pagan groups in the U.S. to come up with a definition of “Paganism” that we could submit to dictionaries. Now, Paganism is the most inclusively diverse movement I know of. Most Pagans revere the Goddess over the God, and sometimes even to the exclusion of the God. It is all about women’s empowerment and about men being comfortable as whole human beings. It is feminist.

But when it came time to write that dictionary definition, I wasn’t allowed to use the word “feminist.” It was considered too controversial, too militant. Even though it was true. The final definition was “Collection of diverse contemporary religions rooted in indigenous traditions or deriving inspiration therefrom, characterized by a belief in the interconnection of all life, personal autonomy, and immanent divinities. Often nature-centered and supportive of gender equity.” Did you catch that? “Supportive of gender equity.” How lame. How tame. It’s like all those people who use the word “Wicca” instead of “Witchcraft.” “Wicca” isn’t a real word. It has no history, no meaning. That makes it safe to use in non-Pagan settings, but really, don’t we have the courage to move beyond that?

Where was I? Oh, right, in the middle of being frustrated.

If they do start a Red Tent in Brown County, I will go. I will check it out and be supportive of the women there and then I will open my mouth and probably be kicked out. Something really powerful happened to and for women in the 1970s and we have lost ground since then in many ways. Gloria Steinem said that they realized in the ’70s it would take over 100 years to change all the individual laws of discrimination against women, so it made more sense to push for the ERA and be done with it. And we came so close. But now we’re back to fighting institutionalized sexism one law at a time (just last week a state passed a law banning abortions after 6 weeks—many women don’t even know they’re pregnant at 6 weeks!).

Maybe we’ll just have to keep slogging through, one women’s circle at a time, one provocative book at a time. But until we start raising girls and boys differently, we’re not going to get very far. I do want to acknowledge the changes that have been made—I mean, look at me, I’m a textbook case of the privilege of being a liberated woman. I just want a holistic push for a societal transformation where all humans, regardless of gender, class, ethnicity, religion, orientation, you name it, are on an equal playing feel. I want us to be fully human, exploring all the colors of our selves and being safe to do so. I want us all to be strong and tender and bloody-minded and empathetic. I want change. I want liberation. I want the world.


Witchcraft is my Home

October 1, 2012

I originally wrote this in the mid-’90s when I ran the Pagan Educational Network. It’s held up remarkably well over the years.

I have always taken my spirituality seriously. Born into a Catholic family, I studied the New Testament for guidance in understanding life. After a young cousin died when I was fourteen, I developed a devotion to the Virgin Mary while working through my grief.

As I grew older I found myself struggling to fit the mold the Church offered. As an intelligent, passionate, belligerent young woman, I found myself pressured to be meek, passive, and suffering—none of which fit my personality. I studied Marian literature to learn what it meant to be a good woman in the Church. One pamphlet said Mary had appeared in a vision to children and told them that women should not wear short sleeves. Rather than feeling angry or skeptical, I despaired. I knew I could not fit into this mold.

When I was eighteen I spiraled into a serious depression, frequently contemplating suicide. One night I went outside, turned to God in utter despair and pleaded with him to help. “I will never need you more than I need you now,” I cried. I wanted a sign, some inner sense that I was not alone. But as I looked up at the starry sky I saw only empty space. My despair turned to iron-cold numbness. I resigned myself to waiting for the madness to go away on its own.

This event was the most obvious step in a process away from theism and organized religion. It was now possible to question my faith. As I embarked on my college career I met people of all religions—and no religion at all. I continued to question my beliefs, eventually settling on atheism. People’s belief in a “Supreme Being” seemed based on their desire for justice and meaning rather than any sort of evidence. That is the essence of faith, my father had told me long before. But I didn’t want to wait until I was dead for justice. I wanted justice now. I was no longer interested in forcing myself into someone else’s mold of what a good person was. I had my own beliefs, my own values, and my own politics. I wanted to be a kingdom unto myself.

As I matured, my angry, self-righteous atheism mellowed into merely an empty atheism. I had always been a spiritual person. But I knew of no faith which would allow me to retain my autonomy while offering a framework for spiritual development. One night I went to talk with an acquaintance about my dilemma. Jim was brilliant, well-read, and open to spirituality in all its forms. When I self-consciously described my situation, he recommended reading Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler. This book is a study of neo-Paganism in the United States. Written by a reporter and intellectual, he suggested it would appeal to my rational side while describing independent, ecstatic spirituality.

I was immediately fascinated by the book. Neo-Paganism (usually called “Paganism” by practitioners) is a collection of diverse religions which are nature-centered and rooted in personal experience. While some Pagan religions provide training structures, the movement as a whole has no hierarchy, no holy book, no one, right, true authority. Pagan religions encourage the individual to develop her own relationship with Divinity, however she views it. And, most intriguing to me, you could be an atheist Pagan!

While several of the faiths were appealing (particularly Druidism), I was clearly drawn to Witchcraft. Witchcraft (sometimes called Wicca, a term I hate) is a federally-recognized religion distinguished from other Pagan faiths by its heavy use of ritual, its emphasis on magic and healing, and its particular worship of the Gods. Its central tenet is “If it harm none, do what you will.” Like most other Americans, I had grown up believing Witches were evil. But I learned that Witchcraft is a peaceful, life-affirming faith which emphasizes personal responsibility and service to the community. Witches practice magic to heal the self, the community, and the Earth. We celebrate all aspects of human experience, whether spiritual, intellectual, emotional, psychological, or sexual. Rather than viewing life as something to transcend, Witches relish being alive and draw strength from the everyday blessings we experience: braiding our daughter’s hair, baking bread, or sharing a hug with someone we love.

Theo/alogy is left to the individual. In my case, I found Divinity in Nature and the life force itself. I had always been fascinated by physics. Now my intellectual awe of the universe was augmented by a spiritual understanding. My Divinity is not an eternal, transcendent entity, only a holistic process of ebb and flow. I call this life force “the Goddess,” as do many of my fellow and sister Pagans. Some Pagans work only with her, sometimes under the name Diana or Astarte. Other Pagans, particularly Witches, honor a divine pair such as Isis and Osiris. Others work with a whole pantheon of gods, such as the Norse pantheon. And still others call on gods and goddesses from many cultures in addition to tree spirits, elves, and fairies. Mystical experiences from all over the world are honored within Paganism. We draw on the faith of our ancestors and the beliefs and practices of surviving indigenous peoples, but update them for our use today.

My understanding of divinity opened doors to a rich, exciting world which challenges me intellectually and spiritually. It does not demand I believe a certain creed or force me into a role I don’t desire or fit. As a Pagan—as a Witch—I can be powerful, passionate, intelligent, fun-loving, compassionate, loving, and dynamic. My spirituality supports my personality, values, and politics. It challenges me to develop continually into a more whole, healthy human being. It offers a community of like-minded individuals. It answers my questions about the meaning of existence, the importance of justice, and the value of change. I have no regrets about leaving my given faith behind. In Pagan Witchcraft, I have found my home.


Teaching a child

April 28, 2011

I want to teach my goddessdaughter. I want to pass on some of what I know.

I would start with the 4 Elements: Earth, Air, Fire, Water. I would give her her first Book of Light and Shadows and ask her to draw her first sacred Circle. And onto that Circle we would place the Elements in order: Earth at the top, Air at 90 degrees, Fire at the root, and Water across from Air. And above and around that we would place the secret 5th Element: Spirit. That which binds us, one to the other, in the great Wheel of lifeanddeath.

We would investigate the Elements in a practical way, suitable to her age. A stone for Earth, breath for Air, a lit candle for Fire, and a mini-cauldron of Water. And our mantra: “Never leave a burning candle unattended.” 🙂

To keep her interested, I would teach her the Discordian tradition of The Sacred Chocolate: White for Air, semi-sweet for Fire, milk for Water, and dark for Earth. I suspect that will get her attention. 🙂

Over time I would teach her the layers of the sacred Circle. First the directions: North for Earth and then around the Circle. We would orient ourselves outside and learn how to find North no matter where we are.

Then the different Gods or guides that go with each marker. I would give her options from the world’s religions. I would explain the different characteristics of the Elements and ask her if she could think of her own guides. I would have her choose who should go where. I would let her know that those guides would likely change as she grows and changes.

Then the seasons: Winter in the North, then Spring, Summer, and Fall. We would draw pictures and tell stories about the different seasons and observe how Nature manifests herself in each.

Then the holy days of my tradition: Samhain in the North, then Imbolc, then Bealtainne, then Midsummer. We would learn these cross-quarter days and the solstices and equinoxes. I would teach her the difference between the two and how to observe the Sun and know the seasons. We would make wreaths of flowers and leaves, a Brighid’s cross, a May Day poppet.

I would teach her of the Moon and its journey through its thirteen cycles. I would teach her how to identify trees by their leaves and bark. We would listen for the song of the birds and follow their call.

Once she’s old enough, I would teach her the Tarot, beginning with the Major Arcana before learning the Minor. While the cheat sheets are helpful, I would teach her to trust her own intuitions and insights so that the cards serve her well.

When she is ten, I would begin taking her to different places of worship so she can be exposed to a variety of belief systems and forms of spiritual engagement. I would encourage her to follow her own heart, listening carefully to see if any one particular path beckoned.

I would teach her magic, beginning with the basics of visualization before moving on to simple charms and prayers. I would give her a book of Latvian dainas that she might know more of her people.

Above all, I would teach her ethics. “If it harm none, do what you will.” The Threefold Law. The deep commitment to justice and compassion that is a necessary aspect of any spiritual being.

Throughout our journey, I would listen to her. I would encourage her to speak from the heart and I would endeavor to hear the sub-text of what she’s saying. While providing a framework for the development of her spirit, I would encourage her to challenge me and herself to greater understanding, charity, compassion, and fairness.

While I might sometimes have her copy from my Book of Shadows, I would sometimes copy from hers to mine. She would teach me as I teach her.

This is my vision for her. It is a lesser version of how I wanted to teach my own daughters, had they manifested in this world. It is open to a multitude of spiritual paths while giving her a solid foundation. It would be creative. It would be fun.

It is not up to me to decide, of course. As her Goddessmother, I feel Called to nourish her spirit. Her parents may disagree with my choices or methods. It is for them to decide. A and J, what do you think?


Latvian dainas

April 17, 2011

I am going to be doing sumkinda priestessing at the upcoming Women Exposed show on the 29th.

As part of my prep, I’m researching prayers and such that might be useful. And I come back, as I always do, to my little book of Latvian dainas. When I worked at Feminist Teacher magazine in the ’90s, this book came in as part of a request for a review. I immediately snagged it and got permission to keep it. Dearest Goddess: Translations from Latvian Folk Poetry, written/translated by Eso Benjamin.

Because Latvia wasn’t Christianized until the 14th (15th?) century, many Pagan traditions survive. Dainas are little prayers–almost conversations–that Latvian women have with their Dearest Goddess. And yes, it’s primarily women who wrote and maintain these prayers. There are over a million on record.

Dearest Goddess is the Sun, shining on the Baltic sea. This is contrary to contemporary Pagan views of the Sun as masculine and the Moon as feminine. I like to see both as manifestations of the Goddess, giving us a more holistic view of what constitutes femininity (I’m not worried about the guys–they can figure out their own system ;-)). The Dearest Goddess is known as Laima in Latvia, though I’ve also seen references to Laima as the daughter of the Sun. Those Pagans, always fluid! What is certain is that Latvian women in traditional dress as referred to as daughters of the Sun.

The dainas are very short but deal with everyday concerns. I love how they are so intimate and picky and bossy and joyful. They reflect the full range of life without limit. They are eminently practical. Here is a selection (with major props to Eso for bringing this heritage to light in the Western world).

++++++

I  have looked for her
here, there, everywhere,
but my Dearest Goddess
is playing games
with me:

She will not tell me
where I can find her.
She’s making me spin
in my chair.

+++++

You go first, Dearest Goddess.
I’ll follow in your footsteps.
Don’t let me step
into evil days.

++++++

I’m out of songs,
Dearest Goddess.
What shall I do?

I know.
Let me find an old bachelor.
Let me ride him
to find a new song.

++++++

Dance, Marsha, dance.
Take no worry.
Your Dearest Goddess guards you.
Your Dearest Goddess sits
in a silver boat
and wears a golden crown.

++++++

This mill is too much;
the wheel is too heavy.
Dearest Goddess,
it’s been a hard life.
I no longer wish
to keep walking in circles.

++++++

Some people are saying
that my Dearest Goddess
has died by drowning.
Well, I just saw her
walking over the waters
sowing handfuls of
gold and silver.

++++++

Give, Dearest Goddess,
what’s to be given.
I’ll take
what’s to be taken
with both hands,
without hesitation.

+++++++

Be my helpmate,
Dearest Goddess.
Let the roses I plant tonight
bloom into a rose garden by morning.

+++++++

Though we are not sisters,
we call ourselves sisters.
It makes some people mad.
It makes the Dearest Goddess glad.

++++++

My throat is like a trumpet–
I can compete even with brass.
My voice is like gold
and flows even through hard rock.

+++++++

My mother raised me
in a nightingale’s nest.
I grew up to sing
with a nightingale’s tongue,
to hear my songs
roll the echo from the mountain
down through the valley.

++++++

Unhappy people
will not get me down.
As soon as I can get away,
I’ll sing and dance again.

But do you know
what will stop a song?
A slap in the face,
a fist in the back.
Else, I will sing
even through tears.

++++++

My mother died singing,
and so did my father.
So will I.
And after I die,
I will go on singing
with my sister
from the top of our graves.

++++++

When I sing I sing happily;
when I cry I shed a river of tears.
I learnt my song
from the Dearest Goddess;
I learnt my tears
from being an orphan.

++++++

What’s wrong with my man?
He’s out barking with the dogs.
I’m smarter.
I walk singing.

++++++

The Unwelcome Goddess
gave me a present of fancy shoes for a party.

If you’ll be my chaperone Dearest Goddess,
I’ll be happy to dance barefoot.

++++++

The Dearest Goddess
gave me a thousand songs
at the tip of every wheel spoke.
Whenever I’m sad,
all I need to do is turn the wheel,
and song flows.

++++++

The leaves of the linden do not quake,
her daughters do not hate.
Dearest Goddess,
all the world weeps
if we don’t speak peace.

++++++

We are three sisters
with six ripe teats.
Dearest Goddess,
we’ve come to complain:
Where are the boys?

++++++

The wolf bragged
and the bear bragged
that they are strong.

Dearest Goddess,
I left them behind.
On my journey
I need only your company.

++++++

You will never find me
among the chaff.
The Dearest Goddess leads me;
my Dearest Goddess
will lift me up
to the mountain top.

++++++

There are many, many more I can post but this should give you a flavor. Buy Benjamin’s book; it’s a treasure! Blessed Be, Dearest Goddess!


Who’s Who entry

March 6, 2011

Yowza, what a blast from the past! I did a vanity search on YouTube in the hopes of finding my speech for Tony Mullane’s induction into the Cinci Reds Hall of Fame, when I stumbled upon a video that claims to be a Who’s Who of the Pagan community. And I’m the first one listed! Right before Margot! WTF!! 🙂

I think this is based on a book published in the ’90s. I remember I got listed in one of these Who’s Who things at some point. The bio (at 1:05) is very brief and pulls on stuff I’ve already published elsewhere. It’s way outdated, since I don’t even know if PEN publishes Water anymore and the Wiccan Community Fund ended long ago. The only thing I do now is moderate the list and maintain the website for the Our Freedom Coalition.

Odd that I should stumble upon this now. This last week was the 10th anniversary of the first (and only) national Pagan Summit. Angie and Andras are making rumblings about my calling everyone together again. So I’ve had that on my mind, wondering how I would organize it, remembering the Great Event That Was.

I’ve done little for the movement since leaving PEN and starting my own business. I miss feeling part of something bigger. I don’t know if I’ll organize another summit but it would be nice to connect with my peeps in a deeper way. I miss my tribe!

Well, this has certainly given a nice jolt to the day. Makes me wonder who I am now and if I’m really on the path I should be. Did I consciously choose to be here? Augh, this is too deep for a Sunday afternoon! Must go drink milk and find chocolate….


Was Persephone abducted or raped?

January 7, 2011

I finally started writing my version of the Demeter/Persephone tale from ancient Greece. I’ve been researching on and off for almost 10 years. It’s going to take a long time to write and an even longer time to edit.

As I’ve researched, I’ve gathered key plot points and catalogued all the different versions of them. For instance, the set-up of Persephone’s encounter with Hades has at least 10 variations, such as

  1. Persephone gathers flowers on a hillside alone in order to make a garland for Demeter.
  2. Persephone plays with the sea nymphs. She runs to gather flowers in order to make necklaces for them but is soon far afield.
  3. Persephone gathers flowers in the cool, moist woods with Demeter, then notices a narcissus. She wanders off in search of more.
  4. Persephone gathers flowers in a meadow along with four river nymphs.

The variations go on. What’s clear is that each writer has hir own imagination, as well as hir own agenda. Whether she’s picking flowers by herself or with others may not have much portent, but what about the question of whether or not Hades rapes her?

Anyone with a passing knowledge of Greek religions knows how common male-on-female rape is. Zeus seems to be the greatest criminal in religion (well, maybe Satan is worse). The general consensus of feminist critique is that these stories of rape reflect the violent takeover of one region by a dominant Greek one. Invade a city-state, rape their goddesses. That sort of thing.

I grew up on stories of Persephone’s being abducted by Hades. It wasn’t until later that I became familiar with the feminist reading of that abduction as a cover story for rape. It makes a lot of sense, in both a historical sense and a mythic one.

A digression: One of the things I love about Paganism is that you can find a deity for any state of being. For instance, the physically challenged need only look to the Greek god Hephaestus, who was lame. This idea of making all facets of the human experience divine is one that I find endlessly fascinating as well as comforting. No matter what’s going on in one’s life, one can always find a story to go along with it.

In the case of Persephone, reading her abduction as a cover story for rape creates a powerful story. As I read in one feminist critique, it positions Persephone as incredibly powerful; she goes fully into a state of violation, despair, and negation—and she creates. This has echoes of the Hindu goddess Kali but it’s not quite the same. It tells us (women in particular) that we can be at the lowest point of our lives and still find the power of creation within ourselves. We may not believe it, but here’s a story that holds out a vision for us.

So I’m faced with the choice of which story point to use: abduction or rape? What strikes me as I collect the re-tellings is how many of them don’t mention rape. They don’t mention love. They don’t mention any motivation for Hades’ appearance at all. Of course, some depict him as hell-bent on wielding power over Persephone and some say he’s a victim of Cupid’s arrows, but most of the interpretations I’ve read don’t mention a motivation. I find that curious.

The story of Persephone’s descent to the Underworld is obviously a coming of age story. What I like about this lack of motivation for Hades’ actions is that it avoids casting him as an evil being who attacks Persephone. It tells a story where Persephone is not a victim per se; rather, the things that happen to her happen because they happen to her. They just do. In a sense, it’s just time for them to. When it’s time to put away childish things, it’s not always because some evil-doer comes along and oppresses you. Sometimes it’s just time.

This interpretation appeals to me because it allows broader identification with Persephone. I am telling the story from all three characters’ points of view, including Hades’. Everyone has trouble reconciling Persephone’s faithful marriage to Hades with the whole abduction thing, and that point becomes more problematic if he raped her. Keeping him as a more passive figure, as an agent of time rather than of evil, makes it easier to transition to the relatively balanced relationship they share.

Aside from all these storytelling niceties, one of my sources noted that the earliest Orphic tellings of the story make it clear that it was an abduction, and only later versions turn it into rape.

In a way, it’s analogous to Set’s place in the Egyptian pantheon. He is now often perceived as evil, but he originally was the destructive side of nature that makes it possible for creation to happen. He represents the flooding of the Nile each year that destroyed villages and livestock but which also left fertile soil in its wake. There are many reasons why he got a bad rap later on, but the earliest stories make it clear that he is not evil incarnate. That idea comes later, seems rooted in the Middle East, and seems to be a product of dualistic religions which split all the world into good or evil. Other religions’ deities are more nuanced—more like human beings.

Back to Persephone—I am writing a story about mental illness, about depression. She goes into the Underworld again and again—but she also comes out into the sun-lit world again. Yes, it’s a story of the seasons on the one hand, but on a psychological level it’s a very personal drama of the soul’s descent into madness and its eventual recovery—repeatedly. Her strength lies in how she navigates these cycles.

Lastly, I am writing the story in part for my nieces and goddessdaughters, and when it came time for me to decide whether it would be abduction or rape, I decided to go with abduction. They are young and will discover the realities of sexual violence soon enough. I don’t want it coming from me.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.