The thing about living with the seasons is this: when the days grow unmistakably shorter and colder, and the green either drains from the trees or goes up in a blaze of glory, even those of us who prefer the warmer months don't feel as sad as we might have in the past. Or, like Apollo above, you might even feel downright delighted!
But the Autumn Equinox, when the day and night share equal hours, is usually -- actually, quite literally -- still somewhere in between. We celebrated the cloudless, breezy and very warm first day of Fall last Saturday on Ima's farm. It was warm enough to be summer but brown and dry enough to be Fall. The silvery moonlit night came cold and damp, allowing us to be truly grateful for a roaring bonfire and double-pronged twigs perfect for toasting marshmallows.
But I get ahead of myself.
We were joined by four guests for this celebration, including Christina, a friend of mine whom I met through Herb Dad's course.
We started by casting sacred space in the Tree of Life garden. Those of us in the Mystery School proceeded to our chosen spheres, which served as reminders for the issues we'd committed to work on this year. Our guests were given a crash course in Kabbalah and each chose the sephirah to which they felt the most drawn.
At the beginning of Autumn, the trees bear fruit even as they begin to shed their leaves. With this in mind, we journaled in our gardens to create lists of things that no longer serve us (like the leaves) and meditated on those blessings for which we are grateful this year (like the fruit). We picked a few herbs from each of the gardens and ... well, we stuffed those in our pockets.
Next, we traveled the short distance to Hermit's yurt for the second activity in the day's extended ritual: playing with Sculpey clay! Actually, we were using the medium to create amulets representing what we wished to incubate in the dark. Apollo, a natural sculptor, showed us the beautiful amulet he'd crafted ahead of time and introduced us to various sculpting tools and techniques. I encouraged the group to make this a contemplative, quiet exercise -- because what we plan to dream in the coming dark takes no real form until the light of Imbolc in the beginning of February. While the clay hardened in the oven, we created apple pomanders (fresh apples studded with designs made out of cloves) to represent the blessings we received this year.
After lunch, we reconvened in ritual attire and made our way to the God's Hill, the high point of male energy in the forest. There, a fire was prepared. Apollo eloquently introduced us to the next ritual activity: the burning of the lists we made of the things we would like to unburden ourselves of as we go into the Dark of the year. In these flames, we purified our amulets with the element of Fire. After this, one by one we walked to a seven-foot high wooden stave engraved with the runes of Odin. With eyes closed, we each ran a hand along the surface of the stave and chose a rune to be interpreted later.
Next, we walked to the lowest part of the land and the point of female energy, the Goddess Glade. Here we spoke aloud our gratitude and placed our pomanders, as an offering and sign of these blessings, in the center of the Navel Fire which we kindled at Spring Equinox. Family, friends, community, opportunity, love, lessons learned, and happiness -- our apples quickly accumulated to become a cheerful green and red group amidst the cold gray-brown ash of the fire pit. Here we sprinkled sand from around the fire pit over our amulets, blessing them with the element of Earth. When we were finished, Ima called the women together to cover the apples and the Navel Fire pit itself with the large stones that serve as its protective ring during the active season. With this act we officially closed the feminine fire for the winter.
Ima led us down the forest trails to the main Y-shaped crossroads, where we called upon Hecate, triple goddess of the crossroads. She is the goddess of liminal places, who alone sees the secret events that bring great change, a perfect guide for our quickening descent into the Dark. We placed the herbs we'd picked in the sephiroth that morning as fresh incense in a thurible. With the resulting smoke we blessed our amulets with the element of Air.
As our last activity before supper, we traveled to the dromenon (a labyrinth in a natural clearing) to officially turn the Wheel of the Year at dusk. As Ima reminds us when we do this at every solstice and equinox, who is to know if Nature will change her seasonal garments without human recognition and participation? Indeed, as Hecate darkly bears witness, what are the small secret acts that bring great change? We held hands and revolved around the altar at the center of the dromenon for one and a quarter turns.
After dinner, we met in the dark outside the yurt. I distributed taper candles to all present. These were lit; and, not without a bit of theatre, we proceeded single file, in the dark, by candlelight, to the Goetic Circle.
The Goetic Circle is the newest magical site on the land. It was designed by Apollo last year when he completed his work of Abramelin, which is an oft-attempted but seldom completed grueling 18 month-long magical work designed to purify the magician of all his demons. (This is a grossly oversimplified description; suffice it to say, it is not for the mentally unstable, the easily distracted, or the faint of heart.)
The site itself is a major piece of installation art: 72 two-foot-tall posts comprise the circle. These are painted white on the inside, black on the outside, and bear the 72 triplets of Hebrew letters which represent the names of 72 angels or intelligences (also known as the Shemhamphoresh.) This first night of Autumn, at the foot of each of these posts in the circle's interior, flickered a tealight in a tiny glass globe.
As each of us arrived at the entrance to the circle, Ima met us with a challenge: "Are you willing to enter the darkness of the abyss?"
Upon answering, "Yes," she extinguished our candles, one by one. I stood at her side and as each attendee passed through, I handed them an unlit floating candle. Once we were all in the circle, Ima told us a story, which I will summarize here:
Once upon a time, when a loved or honored one passed into the shadows of death, the Celts would place the body on a raft or in a boat and push them out to sea. Once the boat was far enough away from shore, a flaming arrow was shot onto it, consuming the body and its carrier in flames. It was an offering, a tribute, a separation once again of the person into the four earthly elements that make up all our bodies.
We approached the center altar, atop which was set a large, shallow container of water. First we consecrated our amulets with the final element of Water. Then, we lit our new candles and floated them on the water's surface, acknowledging that we burn our blessings in gratitude and let them go to make room for the new. We intended that this burning be fuel and this light a beacon for us throughout the Darkness, a help to navigate the ever uncharted Abyss. The sight of the faces of my friends, these women, men and children, illumined against the deep blackness and reflected in the dark pool, was haunting and beautiful.
Our candles crowded the Abyss, and when all had placed a light there, we turned to a large black mirror positioned outside the circle. Each of us were invited to scry its curved surface. Because some are more naturally receptive to visual images than others, some saw shapes, while others did not. Some approached the mirror, others did not.
When all who wished to scry had their time before the mirror, Ima announced a surprise: her son had requested to have his Third Eye reopened and that he be dedicated to the hermetic path. Many of us have watched him grow from a small boy to a handsome, sweet-natured teenage martial artist who can hold your gaze the way most adolescents cannot. In recent years, Ima has spoken of him often as a future priest, and I admit I couldn't quite see what she saw. But now, as he stood before us in the darkness in his father's brown ritual cassock, he looked every bit the young magician and warrior priest.
His father blessed him with the male elements on the altar: Air and Fire. Ima asked me to bless him with the female counterparts: Water and Earth. Finally, Ima anointed him with oil and welcomed him to our school by his magical name: Lioncoeur (Lionheart). We are very proud and happy to have him as a companion on the hermetic path.
That night I dreamed very un-Autumnal psychedelic dreams of young succulent plants flourishing as in stop-motion animation all over the gardens.
I had the honor of designing the Autumn Equinox ritual this year, based around a core of two of Apollo's ideas. Despite this, I asked Ima to lead, which she did, and so beautifully. She was fully committed to the ritual even though it was not of her own design.
Perhaps I am biased, but she seemed to priestess this celebration with uncommon grace, even for her. I'm sure it was a combination of things -- the season, her dress, her new spiritual disciplines, Lioncoeur's dedication to the path. Something about the light, or perhaps some other intangible thing, made her look so much more... magical than usual. Like Hecate, I observed her when she could not observe me: I watched her sitting as though suspended in Binah, her sphere, steady through the reedy and trembling equisetum like some kind of anti-Ophelia. Taking a shortcut through the gardens on an errand at midday, I spied her secretly meditating under the merciless sun in Tiphareth. In her olive green dress she passed in and out of the smoky sunlight at the God's Hill. I have known her for about five years, but on this unlikely holiday she was throwing glamour like a siren.
What great change is she courting?
At the end of the weekend, as we packed to leave, she called me away from the others into her special enclosure in the forest. We spoke of no small things: We talked about what it means to be a priestess, a wife, a lover. We talked about discipline and strengths and weaknesses. Finally, she told me that while she did not plan to die any time soon, one day she would go away, where I couldn't find her, and I would be able to take her place.
No amount of living with seasons and observing the Earth's cycles could have prepared me for that. I felt very sad, but also very ... right. These are the things we speak of in this time of no time, during this still point of balance between light and darkness.
Two days later she pushed me out of the nest to perform my first public ritual in her presence -- a very special rite of passage for her beautiful daughter, who officially named her spirit mother (our very own gentle Vesta, a welcome newcomer to our Mystery School!). I was completely stunned by the task, and honored too. I hope I did well.
A new beginning in Autumn, as all the plants turn brown and withdraw their energy underground to their roots? Dreams of bright green seedlings on the first day of Fall? How do these fit into the turning of the season?
Geometry shows us that movement at constant speed in orbit -- like the Earth moves, or as we move around the Wheel of the Year -- continually presents the moving object with a new tangential perspective, courtesy of its velocity vector. In other words, if we move around a center, we have the opportunity to see in every direction (on that plane). Freed of centripetal force, we move in a straight line through space and can look in but one direction: straight ahead! Some people think there is little use in looking back, but I find that it can be helpful when one doesn't want to repeat one's mistakes. It is odd to consider that this kind of freedom of sight comes, ultimately, from being bound.
Or as Ima is lately fond of saying, "Once you stop changing, you're dead."
Let us be grateful for the center that holds.
May you have a blessed Autumn and a dream-filled Dark.
See pictures from our Mystery School's Autumn Equinox weekend here.