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December 2007

November 2007

Islands They Were

Tor_from_wearyall

For now, just a photo from our trip to Glastonbury over the Thanksgiving holiday. This was taken the day before the full moon, from Wearyall Hill. In the foreground you see the holy thorn fabled to have sprung spontaneously from Joseph of Arimathea's staff when he plunged it into the ground upon landing at Wearyall Hill. In the midground we have the town of Glastonbury, a couple of hours or so before dinnertime; in the background, the Tor with its lonely St. Michael's tower, under a newly-risen moon. You can click on the photo for a larger version. More to come.

P.S. This is not the "Brian May-worthy full moon shot" mentioned in my recent Twitter. I'm saving that one for the full report!


Going Home

Antony

Here is a picture of Antony, also known as the Rainbow Man, whom I met in Glastonbury, England, in 2000. I saw him (hard to miss, with his ginger hair, giant boots, neon orange poncho and rainbow hat and sweater) as soon as I hopped off the bus in front of the Town Hall on Magdalena Street. The rest of my stay he always seemed to be somewhere nearby. Behind me on the High Street. Across from me on the square. Outside the gates of the Abbey. It was a little creepy, to tell the truth.

So why I decided, when I finally ran into him on my first visit to the Tor one blustery but sunny afternoon, to follow him down the side of the steep terraced hill, out of sight of the tower or either of the paths, is beyond me.

"Can I show you something?" he said.

"What are you going to show me?" I said.

"Have you seen the Egg Stone?"

"No."

"Let me show it to you."

"OK."

My best friend Yaeli gave me a look as the wind whipped her bright red hair around her face. And, hand in hand with Antony, down the side of the Tor I went.

"Ah!" I exclaimed. My free hand was stung by a swipe of nettles.

We came to little sandy nook in the side of the hill from which a holy thorn grew sideways. Under the little tree was a large stone -- shaped like an egg, naturally, as Antony uncryptically described. He explained to me that it was one of the few remaining omphalos stones of the Druids, and had probably rolled down the hill -- or was pushed down by the Christians. We took a few pictures of the stone and each other.

On the way up, my other hand met the little stand of nettles.

Back at the top of the Tor, Antony lay on the ground and I took the photo you see above. He wanted to show off his tattoos. From that position he took a photo of me with St. Michael's Tower behind me.

"What is your astrological sign?" he asked.

"Aquarius," I said. Curiously, I had absolutely no distrust of this man anymore.

"Then this is your place my lady," he said. "The Tor is Aquarius too."

I would find out later that someone arranged Glastonbury on a zodiac chart, with sacred sites representing the twelve signs. It turns out that the Chalice Well and the Abbey, along with the Tor, form the phoenix which makes up the Aquarian sign.

After that afternoon on the Tor, I never saw Antony again -- either on that trip or on subsequent visits. I credit him with a kind of gentle initiation, one that would eventually lead to me 'marrying' the land some years later on a solo journey. I suppose I could have been more like Antony and graced my husband with such a lovely introduction to the magic of Glastonbury on his first visit last year... but a dark initiation fit for the warrior and prince that I believe he truly is seemed much more appropriate. Long before that visit, he saw a picture of Antony and said, "Look at his eyes. He looks like a changeling --- or one of the Tuatha dé Danann."

Perhaps. I can't say I'd be surprised. 

When I stand on the Tor, I look down at the town and feel the energy run through me, whoosh down the side of the hill, into the depths of the Chalice Well and across and through the ruined Abbey arches, before finally rushing off the flat back of Wearyall Hill and over what was once water. It will be wonderful to practice this meditation when I arrive there -- home -- tomorrow.

I can't wait to see my Avalon in its cold, late-Autumn garb. I can't wait to gaze at the full moon from sacred Glastonbury ground.

November is the month of remembrances, and I remember you, Antony.


Samhain 2007: Persephone and the Underworld

I spent the first few moments of Samhain, which we celebrated in Mystery School last Tuesday, chasing a sheet of aluminum foil around a broken glass-strewn parking lot while wearing a long black gown.

On my shoulder was a bag carrying a single pomegranate and about a dozen strips of black broadcloth, along with some personal effects. Balanced on one hand was a now denuded-of-foil cookie sheet, upon which were arranged about thirty unbaked saffron-scented soul cakes, decorated with dried-cranberry crosses. My other hand clutched a bottle of Star Farmer’s chocolate-cherry mead.

Ah, the urban magical life.

Not having slept well all week, I popped the still intact tray of soul cakes into our school’s hot oven and watched in a daze as Apollo set up the room for ritual. I’d tried, in that slim window of time between work and school, to prepare for ritual, and my short meditation seemed to make my consciousness even more diffuse. Ima took me away to say some things to me, and after that I continued to gaze distantly as she cut strips of paper and Apollo moved furniture and lit candles. Even for us, it was a weird energy.

When all had arrived and the soul cakes were done baking (over-baked and dry, but done), we opened circle for ritual in our candle-lit, incense-filled room.

Paulina2

We did something slightly different this time. Instead of having a priest and priestess, we had a priest and two priestesses.  Each of us called down a force: Ima called Demeter; Apollo, Hades; and I called Kore/Persephone.

Everyone was seated, and then Ima began to slowly circle the altar. I joined her orbit, circling across from her, never taking my eyes off hers. And here is how she told the story of what happens when little girls talk to strangers.

With Zeus, Demeter had a daughter whom she called Kore. Like any mother would, Demeter loved her daughter, and wanted to protect her from any harm.

“Beware of strangers,” Demeter told Kore. “Stay close.”

But one day, the girl, whose youthful beauty was already gaining admirers even from distant villages, attracted the attention of someone from a very far away place; someone so foreign, in fact, that he was not of this world.

Kore was picking flowers in a meadow. She had strayed outside of her mother’s familiar circle. Suddenly, there appeared before her a large man clad in black. She tried to run, but he caught her in his heavy, dark cloak and pulled her close. She called for her mother.

“Don’t be afraid, Kore,” he said. “I’m family. I know your father.” 

Not a lie, technically. But Kore didn’t know that.

She gazed into his eyes and swooned even as a scream rose in her throat.

He pulled her closer.

"Come with me and be my bride," he said seductively. "Here, Kore..."

(And because this is a blog about the magical life, I have to tell you how the mundane world played a joke on the magical one. Apollo looked behind him at the table on which our feast (to be consumed after ritual) was set. Not seeing the pomegranate, which would have had to have been cut open anyway, he grabbed the nearest appetizer as a substitute. His choice? A deviled egg. Deviled. Get it?)

He put the sulfuric morsel in front of my face and I jumped out of aspect.

"...Have a bite of this fruit," he cooed.

I looked at him and raised an eyebrow. He surpressed a giggle. I took a tiny nibble off the end of the egg. His giggle escaped.

Kore looked at Hades once more and sank to her knees. Her hands were bound tightly. Down, down she went, down into slumber, down into the Underworld.

The dark lord Hades' Underworld: Can you think of a place you'd less rather be, or a person with whom you'd less rather share your bed? And yet, we have all experienced some kind of sojourn in the land of the dead. The question is, what is it for you, and what did you do when you escaped? Or, more to the point -- have you escaped at all?

Death2

Hades can take on any form. But two things are for certain: he shows up unexpectedly, as if springing from a hole from beneath your feet; and he always, always, drags you down into a kind of sleep, a place below your everyday reality.

Hades may come in the form of an illness that catches you unaware and alters your life for a period of time. He could come as any kind of crime -- a theft or a rape or some other violence that forces you, for a while, to be a person different from the person you call your 'self.' He could be jealousy, paranoia, insecurity, depression, rage -- all those emotions that quite literally seize you against your control. It could be the death of a loved one or the loss of a job. He could even be temptation, seduction -- an affair, for example, or an attraction that threatens all that you hold dear, even if all the action takes place in your head. Hades is the force that comes to take you to unfamiliar, dark, and even dangerous places in your psyche.

In the Underworld, you will hopefully have the presence of mind to ask, "What has happened to me? Who am I? What am I doing?" And those are all good questions, because your time in the Underworld is meant to be devoted to finding the answers.

When Kore was kidnapped, Demeter mourned her daughter's disappearance and searched for her. Naturally, things were upset in Demeter's Middle World. She resisted the reality of Kore's absence, she cried, she wailed, she lamented. Finally, she let the plants die and the earth grew cold. She simply could not go on doing her job as goddess of the harvest while her daughter was missing.

You may be able to propel your waking, physical body through its mundane paces while your emotions dwell in the Underworld. But chances are, like Demeter, you won't be able to perform your day-to-day duties and pleasures without disruption, and others will notice a change in you, no matter how hard you try to cover it up. If Persephone represents the emotional body that has gone down into the dark, Demeter represents our physical bodies and mundane lives that ultimately can provide a cord to pull the emotional self back. In the end Demeter did not so much 'neglect' her duties as she had to STOP her busywork so that she could wait and watch vigilantly for her daughter's return, and be there to welcome her back.

When you realize that your emotional body has been taken to the Underworld of painful, negative or ruminating thoughts and inner experiences, remember Demeter and rest. Let your physical body be quiet and still so that it will be a stable and welcoming house to which the wandering soul may return. Pay attention to your health and what you eat; consume grounding foods and stay away from intoxicants which may numb the pain but just serve to further alienate your emotional self. If this doesn't make sense, just imagine your emotional body or wounded child coming home from a long, frightening journey to a physical body that has been strung out on drugs, sex, overwork or other numbing experiences so as to be unhealthy, inhospitable or even unrecognizable. (In other words, the physical body without an emotional component is like an airplane on autopilot: not to be flown in or subjected to extreme conditions. Keep it grounded.)

Finding Nourishment in the Underworld

When Demeter's mourning, watching and waiting killed the crops and brought on the winter, mortals had to learn to live off what they'd stored from previous harvests. In fact, it was fruit from a previous harvest that sustained Kore, too, while she was in the Underworld.

Myth has it that the maiden Kore unknowingly bound herself to a contract to return every year to the Underworld: for every seed she ate from the pomegranate Hades offered her, she had to stay one month with him. The pomegranate may appear to be a trick on Hades' part to keep her in the Underworld, but we can also see it as an agreement on Kore's part to consume, or integrate, this experience into her own story, her identity. To eat, to take in nourishment, shows that she is not asleep or unconscious during her journey. She is active and awake. Events are not just 'happening to' her. She is able, in what only seems a small way, to exert some control in the situation.

Like Kore, the fruits we have to sustain us on our dark journeys are the strengths and blessings we have accumulated along the way. These may be experiences or inborn characteristics we can use as tools to navigate in the dark and pain. They may be positive observations about our mettle that loved ones and friends have pointed out and which we remember. As the pomegranate not only fed Kore but also served as a reminder her of her mother and her home, these fruits, or blessings, also represent a connection to the Middle World to which you will return. What blessings and strengths can you draw on to nourish you so that you may stay awake throughout your experience, awake enough to learn and to remember lessons from the darkness?

Finding Hecate: The Only Witness

Above ground in the Middle World, winter would not end until Demeter was reunited with her daughter. She did not know what happened to Kore or where she went, and all her pleas for information had been in vain. But it turned out that the search was fruitless only because she had not yet interviewed the right person.

Hecate, the dark and ancient crone goddess of liminal places whom we met at Autumn Equinox, was the sole witness to Kore's abduction, observing quietly as she did from her place/no place and time/no time. If we know Persephone to be the emotional body who now represents the Underworld, and Demeter to be the physical body operating in the day-to-day Middle World, Hecate is perhaps (in this story, anyway) of the Upper World, the timeless and transcendent stillpoint of wisdom and watching. It is appropriate that the goddess ruling times and places of transition should have been privy to the events that transpired when Hades came to town. After all, what our modern quantum physics would identify as a 'wormhole' temporarily opened between parallel universes (the Middle and Under worlds, in this case), is the ultimate transitional phenomenon indeed!

I have heard and read time and time again that Hecate is a very responsive deity, should you choose to call upon her. In Demeter's case, all she had to do was ask. Hecate is that old, wise and silent part of us whom we seldom remember to call upon for advice. The figure of Hecate reminds one not only to stay in contact with one's higher self (from a hermetic standpoint I would say, namely, the part of us that can remember previous incarnations), but also to honor one's elders. Just because someone is old doesn't mean they've forgotten the lessons learned from what they have so richly lived. We may feel, like Demeter probably did about Hecate in her remote, solitary place/no place, that our elders are out of touch with our world. But in cases like this where we find ourselves losing our grip on the reality we cling to so dearly, someone like Hecate can be an invaluable pole star.

Demeter, used to being so busy, had to slow down enough to do her own meditation and connect with Hecate, the ancient and wise goddess who does not change but sees change. When part of you has disappeared into the Underworld, and you have become still, quiet and attentive, ask, "What is the pattern here? When did this change? Why? What is the change? How am I changing?" And finally, "What can I do to call myself back?"

Armed with Hecate's knowledge, Demeter was able to take action, petitioning Zeus to reverse the law of nature and bring Persephone back from the land of the dead. Zeus (who, depending upon which version of the myth you read, may have been in on the abduction scheme the whole time,), made an exception for his daughter and sent Hermes down to escort her back up to the Middle World.

Faceless2_2 

Re-Membering Your Self and Returning to the Middle World

While Kore was in the Underworld, she transformed. She became Hades' bride, Queen Persephone, lady of the dead. She rose to her fate and full power as a goddess, and suddenly had subjects over whom to preside. She became a guide and watcher over disembodied souls. The once innocent maiden Kore now possessed wisdom, dominion and responsibility.

This was the person who met Hermes at the gates of the Underworld when he came to lead her back to her mother. Persephone accepted the invitation and began the ascent.

That Kore, now Persephone, was able to return to Demeter in the world above ground illustrates that she did not lose herself in the Underworld. But identity is a two-way street. On the one hand, she was called back by her mother, who remembered her. Secondly, she also remembered herself, which allowed her to respond and to return.

More than that, she re-membered her self, building into her identity her new role and the experiences, pleasant or not, of her time in the Underworld. She does not say, "This has happened to me, so I am no longer me. I am someone else and I am severed from the person I was. I do not know her anymore." Rather, her actions say, "I am me and I own these experiences. They are mine. They do not control me; I control what I do with them. I have gone down and now I am coming back up."

Persephone was abducted and made to marry the god of the dead. But she didn't lose herself by going mad, committing suicide, getting amnesia or going otherwise unconscious. To put it somewhat irreverently, she stayed lucid, had a snack, and got a job! This is not to say she wasn't terrified, but she was able to maintain a certain kind of control. She accepted the responsibility to guide and watch over the dead -- perhaps because she understood how frightening it was to be taken to the Underworld against her will, and perhaps because she knew, also from her own experience, that the spirits would feel lost until they understood that this was their new home. When she was granted the opportunity to return to her mother, she was able to accept it because she was able to hold on to her self.

So, Persephone returned to the arms of her mother and her sunlit home. She did not stay in the dark Underworld, paralyzed by fear and depression. But just because she returned to the land of the living does not mean she can 'un-travel' to the Underworld or 'un-experience' her fear. In fact, she must be unafraid to return there.

Having the Courage to Return to the Underworld, Again and Again

One of the reasons we experience pain and loss is so that we can be guided and comforted by others and so that we may learn to truly guide and truly comfort in turn. Let me use the example of a woman who has been raped. Having the courage to return to the Underworld does not mean she has to have the courage to be raped again. It means that she must be willing to travel back to that horrible experience in her mind so that she will be able to show compassion and guidance to others who will suffer the same crime. She has to be able to return to that memory so that she can learn from it and prevent it from ever happening to her again. She must have the courage to revisit it again and again when she needs to heal herself or heal others.

It is about doing more than surviving or bearing witness; as someone made stronger by an Underworld experience, you can counsel and guide others and set an example as someone who does not lose themselves in the darkness or denies that it ever happened. You shift the power balance, and like Persephone, use the experience to serve the healing of yourself and others. As Ima said, Persephone was, after all, the first priestess; the first to help others find their way through the greatest rite of passage of all.

---

After I, as Kore, had gone into the Underworld, Ima and Apollo bound the hands of the others. Ima led us into an Underworld trance.

When we were unbound and re-awakened, we ate our soul cakes (based on a 17th-century recipe... and let me tell you, they tasted that way) and began the beloved tradition of speaking aloud the names of our dead family and friends, writing their names on bits of paper or ribbon and affixing these to a tree (in the case of this indoor Samhain, a branch). We shared stories and spoke directly to the spirits, and some of us cried. As we look across the wheel of the year at Beltaine, we find ourselves on the dark side of the time when the veil between worlds thins, when the dead may come to share a night or two in community with the living. Like Demeter, we remember them and call them by speaking their names and placing them on the 'soul tree.'

After all the names had been spoken and written, and the branch was covered in strips of paper, we sat silently for a while. I felt a hand on my back and turned around abruptly -- only to find no one there! That same evening and the following day my friend Stu had been paid a visit (or three) by a mutual 'friend.' I'm not sure it was our friend's hand that I felt, but I did speak his name and put it on the tree, so, as I said to Stu, perhaps our friend had been making the rounds. Whoever it was, I'm honored and grateful for the, er, pat on the back!

I hope my rather lengthy exposition on the very important story of Persephone, Demeter and Hades will help at least one person to realize that even the darkest and most painful journeys can be transformed into tools of compassion, strength and love.

We are in the depths of the dark of the year now, and so it is now that we meditate on dark things; but the truth is, darkness may come to claim you at any time. Then, as now, go with courage, and go with care. May you have a blessed Samhain.

Photos by me, taken at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago when I was a young Kore in high school. The famous cloaked face is "Eternal Silence" by Lorado Taft at Dexter Graves' family gravesite. The little girl is the supposed likeness of someone named Inez Clarke... and the name of the person buried beneath the faceless statue escapes me now.