Myth and Legend

The Longest Day, The Shortest Night: Summer Solstice

Kunthisurya A couple of days ago, the woman who, with her husband, is doing the work of exploring the divine male and female at our mystery school asked me:

"What should I be concentrating on for Summer Solstice?"

I gave her an off-the-cuff drill:

This is the height of the male (solar) force, which draws most strongly upon the expression of female fertility to bring creation to the surface.

It is the zenith of what started as the romantic Beltaine energies. No longer wild, it is focused, and no shadows are cast. The Sun pulls straight upward while the Earth arches toward it accordingly. It seems like surrender, but actually the two hold each other in balance (an even, powerful balance of attraction; not quite the thrall of Beltaine) and see each other most clearly. To draw a metaphor, the mystery lover of Beltaine is now your known partner and most powerful ally.

The Sun brings the Earth to the peak of its industry; but, as with all things cresting, the high point of a cycle heralds its inevitable decline. And as the power of the Sun begins to wane and the days get shorter, the Yin grows and Earth produces her nourishing harvest.

We move so much to the surface of ourselves at midsummer. Every nerve, every sense, seems to be electrified. And as any straight channel will demonstrate, it is the time to receive and give pure, unadulterated and efficient energy because there are no twists and turns to slow or otherwise shift the flow.

This is the definition of what happens at high noon on the day of the Summer Solstice: Become a battery and charge up when the getting's good!

Meditating on Darkness at Summer Solstice

That's pretty much what I told her. But here's what I didn't:

Everyone talks about Summer Solstice as the longest day. Well, it's also the shortest night. That brief night is a vigil in itself, a trembling wait for a day of glory and light.

But what happens to nights after the solstice, at that very fine turning point of energies -- is also very important.

My theory is this: You receive the height of Yang energies at Summer Solstice. These energies are so Yang, they have the ability to penetrate to deepest Yin. This means that you receive the seed of light to sustain you through the greatest darkness -- Winter Solstice. That very first night after Summer Solstice, that night when darkness takes over just tick more... should be given just as much meditation and contemplation because it is the first night, the first expression of Yin, that will anchor and nourish that Yang.

In non-Chinese terms: The first night after the Solstice sets the tone for how well you feed the fire that will carry you through another year, much of it in cold and darkness, until the warmth of the sun begins to grow again. What kind of fuel will you use? How often will you need to stoke the flame? Will you be a good steward of your energies so that they are available to you when you need them most?

As quickly as our attention is given to expansion and heightened activity (Yang, the Sun, the Summer Solstice), in an instant it must shift to conservation (Yin, the Earth, the harvest and eventual sustenance through slumber).

But Why Listen to Me When Hrithik and Aishwarya Can Show You?

But gee, you know, simulacra is the way to reach the masses these days, isn't it? So here's a music video of sorts which kind of illustrates my point. It's from the film Jodhaa-Akbar, whose absolutely gorgeous (you guys: GORGEOUS) soundtrack by the incomparable A. R. Rahman has had me obsessed for months. In fact I bought the soundtrack before ever seeing the film, and I still think that in some ways the movie does not do justice to the music!

I won't spoil the film by giving too many details, but know that you must get over the fact that the pair in this clip are probably two of the most beautiful people on the planet before you can absorb any other meaning.

But in light of Summer Solstice, notice how Emperor Akbar "brings" light into Princess Jodhaa's room -- literally filling it with the rays of the Sun. Of course, it was his event to plan. But the point is, he brings the light that penetrates the feminine space. After a slow build of romance throughout the film, this is the point where they finally see each other for who they are and acknowledge their mutual power -- Yang and Yin.

The display of chemistry is pretty vivid here and the device used by the filmmakers to highlight the strength of this pair's trance-like attraction is that glorious day suddenly becomes night. In absorbing the sight and energy of each other, they exhaust the daylight. And here's the mystery of Summer Solstice: watch as Akbar lights the candle and brings Jodhaa's night-time (Yin) self to life.

Or, don't think at all and just enjoy this stunning clip with its beautiful, beautiful music. Make sure your speakers are turned up. Much, much better yet: plug in your headphones to really appreciate the song. Happy Litha everyone.

P.S. A fine English translation of the song from the Urdu is found here; scroll down. Devotional picture at the top of the post is of Queen Kunthi summoning Lord Surya, the Sun god.

How many goddesses can you find in this post?

Last night in Experiential Anatomy class, a friend I hadn't seen in years said she enjoyed my blog.

Between two schools, two nights of classes per week and two jobs, I'd almost forgotten I had a blog! So here are some short(ish) updates:

Full Circle

The friend I mention above, Beatrice, was there from the moment I set foot on this path of studying herbalism. We spent many hours in class together, camping, driving, talking, eating in those days, and she showed me much generosity, both material and intellectual.

I can still remember one night when we sat in her van outside my apartment after school one day. I was trying to figure out where I was going with my future career, hopefully, in herbalism. I said, "I want to do something in herbalism that no one's ever done before! I don't know what it is, but it has to be different."

Beatrice sighed. "Oh, that's just your ego talking. When you get older you won't be so motivated by that."

I tell you, that moment has stuck with me all these years. Any time I feel the urge to be 'different' coming from some superficial ego place, I hear those words. It's made me a better student, a better herbalist, and hopefully, a better teacher in those rare instances when I might have some wisdom to impart to others.

She finished her course of study at our school before me, and went on to develop her career. When my school decided to offer an Asian bodywork program, she decided to go for it and expand her already formidable healing toolbox. How poetic it is now that she should return just as my long butt-in-seat academic journey nears its end. It seems a very auspicious omen indeed.

Hawaii and the 'goddess'

Lugh and I went on our (so far) annual trip to Hawaii last month. It was an odd sojourn, partly because it was so uncharacteristically cold (low 70s) on Oahu. Sweater weather, really, especially at night. I'd known this was going to be a working trip before going, and that I'd likely be stuck in the hotel most of the time, but I'd have appreciated at least the option of going out and snorkeling!

The one day we really had a chance to get any swimming in, it was still cool and windy. The waves at Waimanalo beach were wild. After eating pineapple and watermelon on the sand with my friends, I stripped down to my swimsuit and made my gradual entry into the water. My friend WaiWai appeared at my side.

We talked for awhile as we watched the waves trounce other swimmers. I'm no swimmer; she, on the other hand, was on the swim team in school. We are both Aquarians -- the air sign that carries the water of enlightenment. "That's the thing," I said. "We want to be able to carry the water and control how it flows. But we aren't comfortable being swept away by it." Of course in this sense I meant water in its broader aspect as the symbol for those often uncontrollable tides of emotion and dream. I think WaiWai agreed.

She taught me to dive under the large waves that day, flattening myself to the sand as the wave rolled over me. A useful tool indeed, in and out of the water.

We also talked about the old Hawaiian man who gave her her Hawaiian name. She told me he used to rub aloe on her shoulders, telling her how good it was for her skin. I asked if perhaps he didn't also just want to touch her. She said it wasn't unlikely.

"You know what the Sanskrit is for aloe, don't you?" I asked her. She didn't. "It's kumari," I said. "Kumari means 'goddess.'" It gave a new angle to her experience. "I have a big aloe in a pot on my doorstep," she said. "Maybe you are getting this piece of information about aloe so you can connect with it and the divine feminine more," I offered.

I may have been only half right.

That evening we were scheduled to go to a concert. It had been an overcast day at the beach and I was slathered with 70-SPF sunscreen. But after a few hours of resting in my hotel room, I started to get an itchy heat rash (along with a runny nose, headache and sore throat... Wind Damp invasion alternating between Hot and Cold). I asked WaiWai to bring me a few stalks of the 'goddess' when she picked me up for the concert. I put them in the mini-fridge and we departed for the show. Returning late from the concert feeling awful and exhausted, I went straight to bed.

The next morning I slit one cool aloe stalk down the middle, giving thanks. I told Lugh about my conversation with WaiWai as he drew the demulcent side of the plant over my shoulder, back, chest and face. It seemed a holy experience somehow.

"Wow, I wish you could see this," he said, as he smoothed the plant over my back. "The red bumps are going down instantly!" I'm convinced now that the best way to use the 'goddess' plant is to have it applied by a man who thinks you are a goddess, as well!

All Work and No Play Make Herbis Orbis a Very Dull (insert Homer Simpson drooling sound here)

I'm finished with the tedium and rigors of (acupressure) point location class, but that has been replaced by the aforementioned anatomy class. Which, so far, isn't anywhere near as maddening, though the tests are still challenging. This is joined by a shiatsu class and weekly 'client' intakes.

Meanwhile, I've got my big East West seminar experience coming up in a few short weeks, for which I am woefully unprepared. Basically we'll have three days of monitored clinic 'testing' where we interview, assess and formulate herbal preparations for various patients. Having fallen behind on other deadlines for work for the school, I will not be able to cram much studying in before I find myself amidst the California redwoods once more, feeling I don't know my own butt from a hole in the ground.

"But haven't you been working in clinic for the past several months?" you may ask. Well, yes, but not with Chinese herbs or patents, which I'll need to know. Suffice it to say, I'm going to rely on the books I'll bring and hope for a talented clinic partner.

And if I don't 'pass' -- well, there's always next year.

Or clown school.

Circling Beltaine

Unbelievably, I'm staring right into the wild eyes of Mayday again, which this year I will spend with my group here in the Midwest. Sometimes I wonder if anything could top the gentle magic of my Beltaine spent last year in the redwood forest, but I have no doubt it will be wonderful in its own way. It always is.

Beltaine is that incredible time of wild blooming desire -- desire on all levels. As I approach May in a much more subdued, introspective way this year, I wonder if I am just so full of desires for all aspects of my life that I'm having trouble focusing; or if the flowers and fruits of last year's desires have depleted and exhausted me so much that I need to lie fallow for a year.

We shall see what blessings the season brings. I submit to the tide, but I acknowledge that this time around, I am not bending to the wild hunt; I am Persephone emerging from my mysterious, dark time with Hades, rushing reborn into the strong, garlanded arms of a goddess who loves me even so.

Finding an herbal ally, daemon and/or genius

The_Inspiration_of_Saint_Matthew_by_Caravaggio A couple of weeks ago, this video of Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert was making its rounds on Twitter. In it, Gilbert discusses the idea of how the creativity of artists was perceived in the world of classical antiquity.

In short, artists didn't take all the credit for creating some incredible piece of work; transcendent artistic expressions were believed to be the fruit of a collaboration between the human artist and his or her assigned supernatural helper spirit, a daemon (as it was called by the ancient Greeks), or genius (as it was called by the Romans).

Gilbert says of the ancient Greeks and Romans,

People did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings back then. People believed that creativity was a divine attendant spirit who came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons.

By the time the Renaissance rolled around -- regarded as the rebirth of the art and spirit of classical antiquity, ironically -- the human being was placed at the center of the universe and artists themselves became known as 'geniuses', signaling a shift toward the belief that creativity was indeed a singularly human phenomenon.

I shared this video with my friend @theogeer of Autumn Twilight. I mentioned that I had felt rushed in clinic the previous evening and complained that I wasn't quite sure I had adequately helped my new client. I joked that I sure could have used the aid of an 'herbal genius.'

Theo said:

I wonder about that idea of an herbal genius. Lots of practitioners, particularly of native or isolated traditions have a plant ally of some sort. Carlos Casteneda famously detailed the development of his alliance with peyote, and the Curanderos and Brujos of Mexico and Central America have a well known alliance with mint, which they use for everything. Maybe what you need is to find a plant ally to guide you in your work?

Now, when you live with one foot in the magickal world as Theo and I do, synchronicities are not only frequent but also consciousness-shifting. Those few lines of his above focused my mind on the events of the previous night at the clinic:

I was concluding a follow-up appointment when my teacher and herb clinic director, Althea Northage-Orr, popped her head in the room and politely asked me to hurry up; an unscheduled client decided to come at the last minute and she wanted me to take the case. I wrapped up my intake and ran to the pharmacy to tweak my follow-up client's herbal formula.

His formula originally contained white peony root, also known in Traditional Chinese Medicine as bai shao. I took the bottle of tincture down from the shelf. It had about a finger-width left at the bottom. I looked at the golden liquid and said to it (silently): "Nope. A woman is going to come in today who will need you." I put the bottle back on the shelf and subbed another Yin-building tonic into this man's formula.

Sure enough, my next case was a lovely woman dealing with exhaustion and family hardships at just the time she was beginning menopause, among other complaints. The white peony, which I had always considered a very feminine, softening, building herb, was among the medicinals indicated for her symptoms. I was happy to drain the last of the bai shao into her formula and mentioned it specifically when I tried to explain to her what my treatment principle was and why I had chosen some of the herbs that she would be taking.

Paeonia lactiflora by Ulf Eliasson That night I dreamed that I was drinking tea out of a wide bowl with a strainer pressed to the bottom of it to keep the tea leaves from floating to the surface. When I had finished the tea, I removed the strainer to discard the marc (used-up plant matter) and was delighted to find that the bottom of the bowl was covered with large white flowers, fresh and plump as if they had just been cut from the plant.

I hadn't thought of my little moment in the pharmacy with the white peony tincture or the dream at all, until Theo's question kicked my memory into gear.

White peony is now a definite herbal 'genius' of mine.

Althea (whose special plant ally is mugwort, not marshmallow, by the way), incorporates workings with plant devas into our education to help attune us to the spiritual energies of plants. In this way I've had wonderful experiences sitting in her garden with live plants which made them special 'friends' -- namely, skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), elder (Sambucus nigra) and St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum). But I'd never had quite the same experience of communication between myself and a plant like I had with white peony.

Another teacher of mine, Michael Tierra, has mentioned several times on his blog that herbalists often happen to be artists as well. Being both myself, and knowing many herbal healers including Michael who fit the artist bill as well, I wholeheartedly agree. A paragraph in one of Michael's recent posts really resonated with me:

No matter how deeply one studies and enters into the complexity of healing, plant biochemistry and so on..., nevertheless there is always place for the irrational and the subjective. The poet's perspective of life, the musician's sense of harmony, the artist's eye of proportion and relationships - these are all shared by healers, especially the herbal healer who works with plants, which are the pure creative expression of nature and the healing process.

I challenge anyone to express it more brilliantly than that!

Herbalits are artists and therefore should create a special place in their practice for the help of their own little attendant plant spirit. Perhaps like animal totems these may change and cycle back and forth over time, but the idea of a divinely assigned plant ally, while by no means new, can really help an herbalist to co-create with the ultimate Divine source of healing.

Since my experience with white peony, I've been keeping my intuition a little more open and trying to allow it to confirm or be confirmed by my usual bookish nature when it comes to choosing herbs for a formula. I pay attention to herbs I come across during the day, in the form of pictures or live plants or dreams, and more often than not these herbs step forward when I review a client's case. Sometimes their presence is specifically indicated for a certain condition; other times they help me decide when I am on the fence about two herbs that do very similar things.

I have to say, after only a short time with this approach, the results and the experiences I have had with clients have been very gratifying. I have felt a greater confidence in my formula selections -- a shared confidence greater than the reassurance I have gotten from books and research only. I keep the awareness of gentle, beautiful bai shao close by; she takes the edge off performance pressure and ego, allowing me (so far!) to be a more present and compassionate practitioner. I am as grateful for this blessing and gift as I am for my human teachers.

If you have a special herbal daemon or genius, I'd love to hear about it and how you came to know it was your ally in the comments section!

Tired, Schmired. No Whining at Imbolc!


Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees?
But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance.
--Romans 8:24-25

Tired, tired, tired. It's a word I hear a lot lately. If you live anywhere that has a true winter season, you know what I'm talking about. Those dark, cold months seem to pack the chronological punch of double time, so long and arduous are they.

It's not that we endure much hard physical labor during winter; that is an effort reserved for the warmer months. What makes winter seem to drag on and on forever is the opposite -- a lack of movement which makes us feel like we're not getting anywhere, not moving forward. While the temperate climes of other seasons call us out into nature for work and play, winter seems designed to keep us inside, stoking cabin fever as much as the fires we need to keep us warm.

Your relationship with winter might have a lot to do with your love of snow sports and how state-of-the-art your outerwear may be. Where I live, we've just been through one of the most bitterly cold, high precipitation winters we've had in about 15 years. How I feel about this season is often colored by how many days of sub-zero windchill I have to walk through, how quickly my city plows the side streets, what sort of technical malfunctions come with frozen switches and wires, and how long it takes before the deadbeat landlords in my neighborhood finally clear their ankle-turning sidewalks of impacted snow.

So, considering this winter's track record -- Yeah, I'm tired. Many a morning I have looked out my window and marveled at the breathtaking expanse of virgin snow and the otherworldly hush that comes with it, inches of crystalline water buffering the sound of traffic, footsteps, voices, planes; the sole sound the lonely scrape of a shovel in the distance. But then I'm out in it walking to the train, and like David Byrne I say to myself, "If this is paradise, I wish I had a snowblower!"

Winter is exhausting in some respects. But if we've done it right, we've used it to rest and to dream. And no matter what the thermometer says outside, hope isn't just right around the corner, it's here.

Lessons of Water at Imbolc

God hurls down hailstones like crumbs.
The waters are frozen at God's touch;
God sends out the word and it melts them;
at the breath of God's mouth, the waters flow.
--Psalm 147

On the Celtic Wheel of the Year, February 2 is actually the first day of Spring. Sure, it could be colder than a meat locker outside, and the ground could be so hard it might seem as though nothing green could ever burst forth from it. But take my word for it: February 2 marks the beginning of Spring.

Like Paul says in his letter to the Romans at the beginning of this post, you have to hope for what you cannot see, and wait with endurance. This hope, waiting and endurance is the work of Imbolc, also known as Candlemas. Perhaps if we cannot see that which we hope for, we can sense it, and in early February we usually get that blessing. For sure, the days are getting noticeably longer. If you're lucky, as we have been just this weekend, you get a thaw and watch the first movement of the year not driven by some merciless wind. There are no signs of life yet, and the ground is still covered with snow, but I've been watching with pleasure the receding crusts of dirty snow as it melts into puddles. I sent up an "Amen!" for every icicle (some with small child- or pet-skewering potential!) hanging from the eaves of the house that shrank in the sun, drop by drop, until finally breaking free and shattering into pieces on the ground below.

It is no coincidence that the element of water is most prominent at Candlemas rituals. At Imbolc, we purify ourselves for initiation into the Light of the Year, the new cycle of work and growth on our spiritual and mundane paths. It is a kind of baptism in this sense -- a washing away of the Dark and of the old year.


If you look at the role of water in the sacrament of baptism, you can see that it cleanses, which is largely the point, but deeper than that, it carries a special blessing. It is a vehicle for the Spirit, which follows it and falls onto the person receiving the sacrament, conferring the grace of purification and welcome. This is precisely the same role water plays at Imbolc, lit and made alive by the fire of the young Sun.

Getting Your Act Together for Imbolc

But water is also a splash in the face -- a wake up call. The time of dreaming in the dark is done, and it's time to get to work. The water that moves now, that cleanses us, also removes the sleep that carried us through the deep winter months. Last Imbolc I wrote about the work ethic example of the goddess Brigid and the traditional meaning of Imbolc -- from the Gaelic for "in milk," associated with lambs born at this time of year and all the work and preparedness that requires. The movement of water from frozen to flowing is, for many of us, a subtle but more understandable cue that the time has come to prepare the way to put some of our more realistic mid-winter dreams into action.

So too does the receding snow pull away the cozy covers from a sleeping earth, revealing it to the approaching and life-giving Sun, telling the ground to "wake up," so to speak, and begin the work of letting seeds soften for their millions of inevitable underground Spring explosions.

We often feel groggy when we're just waking up, but the energy of the year is beginning to grow. It is time to make the most of the few weeks we have left to prepare well for what we wish to bring forth in the New Year! Whether you have a circle of friends with whom to observe Imbolc, or just a meditative bath to mark your official entry into the new cycle, I hope you reflect upon the lessons of newly moving water and the role the warming Sun plays in this. A blessed Imbolc to all!

Above: Lugh in a Chicago alley; The Baptism of Christ by Paris Bordone.

The Sweet Taste of Hope

Just had to post a photo of these cupcakes I made (with my husband's help) for our landlady's Inauguration Day party on Tuesday night:


I piped the frosting and put the sprinkles on these cake-mix cupcakes while Lugh printed and cut out the Barry heads.

"I think it's safe to say that Obama won't be spending an evening in the future cutting out pictures of my head a couple dozen times," he said.

Congratulations to our new First Family but more than that, congratulations to our nation for demonstrating its ideals.

The Dark of December: Time to Count Your "Nevermores"


Most of us know Edgar Allen Poe's most famous poem -- the one that catapulted him to stardom, in fact, in 1845: "The Raven."

Is this poem the story of a grieving lover slowly descending into madness, hallucinating an interaction with a raven who may or may not be there?

Even if it is, Poe's "The Raven" illustrates a great way to waste the segment on the Wheel of the Year which is the darkest yet of the Dark half: December. Let's take a look:


ONCE upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
" 'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door --
Only this, and nothing more."

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; -- vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow -- sorrow for the lost Lenore --
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore --
Nameless here forevermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me -- filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
"'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door--
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door --
This it is and nothing more."

So here's our narrator, sitting in his cozy little house, fire crackling by, reflecting upon the past. Certainly we see late October and November as a time for reflection upon the past year. In October we reflect more on the past year's gains -- it is the final month of harvest, after all. And, keeping in mind that to reap the October harvest means that something must die, November is traditionally considered as the month of remembrance for the dead.

But "The Raven" is set in December -- "bleak December" -- and the time for reflecting and remembering is over.

Note that in our poem it is December outside, separate from our narrator's action, and something from out there is trying to get in. Whatever it is makes our narrator (read: us) nervous and scared, and understandably so.

But look closely: the narrator is out of step with the season and time of day:

It is midnight; he is awake, reading, fighting off sleep.

Now is not the time for rational thinking or for rationalizing whatever might be "out there" away; it is the Dark of the Year, and we are quickly slipping into the time for dreaming, and as we all know, dreams are anything but rational.

December is the time of forgetting, and he is still remembering. Perhaps forgetting is too strong a word; anyone who has been initiated into the ways of death by the loss of a loved one is forever changed and will certainly never forget, but one does have to stop dwelling at some point.

That point is represented on the Celtic Wheel of the Year by the darkest time: December.

I'll write more about that in a moment. Let's move on through "The Raven":

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
"Sir," said I, "or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you" --  here I opened wide the door; --
Darkness there, and nothing more.

A lie: first of all, sleeping would be appropriate at this hour, not napping, and secondly, he wasn't napping, he was awake, reading! Another incongruence.


Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Lenore!"
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, "Lenore!"
Merely this, and nothing more.

Using his empirical sense of sight, he searches the dark abyss fruitlessly for the visitor who has come a-rapping. He whispers of course, hope against hope (or horror), what is on his mind: the name of his lost beloved. The darkness returns the name. Is it she who has disturbed his evening? Is she out there? But the echo is all he gets, and so, unsatisfied:

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon I heard again a tapping somewhat louder than before.
"Surely," said I, "surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore

Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;

'Tis the wind and nothing more!"

Our narrator turns away from the cold night beyond his door, probably never even stepping over the threshold, and returns to his room. He chooses not to search the blackness, preferring the comfort of his quarters and morbid thoughts.

Whatever did not come in through the door is now at the window. Though he still rationalizes it away to preserve his peace of mind, he is still compelled to see what the December night has brought him.


Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not an instant stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door

Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door

Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
"Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou," I said, "art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore

Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!"
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."

The December night has brought him a raven, which unapologetically barges right in. In myth and legend, the raven is the bird of death -- from bill-tip to talon, black as the cold midnight from which it came, an eater of carrion, its artless broad beak not made for singing (that is the glad expression of spring and summer birds), but only capable of uttering rough sounds.

Or in this case, as we shall find out, one merciless, negative word: "Nevermore."

But who are the other 'characters' in these two verses?

Where does the harbinger of the month of cold, darkness and death, the black scavenger bird, alight?

Atop the head of Pallas Athena: daughter sprung full grown from her father Zeus' head, virgin goddess of wisdom, valor and war, companion to heroes, bringer of light, discipline and philosophy to humankind.

Pallas' totem animal is the owl; how dare any other bird, especially one so inelegant as the raven, perch right atop her horsehair helmet?

Athena represents order, rational thinking, discipline. This represents comfort for our narrator, most likely an academic of some sort. But he's already got one foot in another world -- the world of death, into which he has been initiated by the loss of his Lenore. He refuses to look at Death for what it is, and so does not understand its mystery, only its machinery. He is torn between wanting to forget Lenore completely and wishing to be reunited with her. In any case he remains static in his dwelling upon the memory of something that can never be restored to the original state with which he associates it.

When the raven perches atop the white bust of Pallas Athena, it signifies two things: 1) This is not the time for rational thinking. It's a wild, dark, December night out there and you would only be so lucky as to be able to rely on rules and your five senses to get you through. And 2) Death and decay are inevitable. Not even the most ardent worshippers of Athena's Olympian ideals of light, discipline and heroism can escape it.

But it is our narrator himself -- or some 'knowing' part of him -- who utters the name of the Death god himself: Pluto. Pluto is Hades, lord of the Underworld, where, if we were to look at this from a Greek mythological point of view, Lenore now resides. And a sight-seeing tour to the Underworld is exactly what the Dark of the Year provides, if one is aware enough to buy a ticket.

Like so many of us who study myth and archetypes, our narrator has the tools and inner knowing to apply the mysteries' usefulness to his mundane life, if only he can remember that they exist beyond his precious books!

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning -- little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door --
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as "Nevermore."

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing farther then he uttered -- not a feather then he fluttered --

Till I scarcely more than muttered "Other friends have flown before

On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before."
Then the bird said "Nevermore."

Bleak December's salesbird of death seems to tell our narrator: "Look -- if you think you will ever be rid of the reality of Death, you've got another thing coming, buster."


Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
"Doubtless," said I, "what it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore

Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of "Never

But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore

What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking "Nevermore."

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamplight gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamplight gloating o'er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Hmm. "Some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster/ Followed fast and follwed faster till his songs one burden bore --/ Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy bore..."

Gee Mr. Narrator, project much?

Alternately dismissive and bemused, our narrator continues to be torn: first, he rationalizes away the raven's talent for speaking its single word, but then pulls up a chair and tries to divine some deeper meaning from it; second, he seems to begin moving forward in unraveling the mystery of his bird guest, but then immediately returns to his tormenting yet familiar thoughts of dead Lenore.


Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by angels whose faint foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
"Wretch," I cried, "thy God hath lent thee -- by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite -- respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!"
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."

The narrator either hallucinates or truly senses the presence of angels and incense. He thinks that in kindess God has sent them to help him forget Lenore. The raven once again unceremoniously disrupts the stillness with its familiar cry.

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! -- prophet still, if bird or devil! --
Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted --
On this home by Horror haunted -- tell me truly, I implore --
Is there -- is there balm in Gilead? -- tell me -- tell me, I implore!"
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil -- prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us -- by that God we both adore --

Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore

Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore."
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."

By now knowing EXACTLY what the raven's answer will be to any question put before it, the narrator bizarrely gives the bird the power of a prophet and asks it if he will ever find relief from this sorrow, either in this world or the next. Of course the raven gives its usual reply.

And because this poor guy is already at the end of his rope, you know the result isn't going to be pretty:


"Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!" I shrieked, upstarting
"Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!
quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!"
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."

And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted

Driven to anger and hysterics by the raven, who has only done exactly what at first 'beguiled all (the narrator's) sad soul into smiling' before, the narrator screams at the bird to get out of his house. The implacable raven utters his one word and remains there still.

So how do I say our narrator is "wasting" his December?

Let's give the raven a few more words:

"Dude, if you are just going to sit here in your house, as though it were still the time of reflection and remembering (October and November), then no, moron, you will never find relief from your sorrow. You'll never forget Lenore because you won't let her really be dead. And much better than forgetting, you won't ever understand what she really meant to you until you stop dwelling on her absence."

Poe, I'm not.

In other words, you can't keep riding the wave of anything from the past if you're going to move forward. You have to let go -- let die -- your triumphs and failures, or at least the emotions of them, so that you can build anew. Yes, you'll use foundations previously laid, but if you sit around saying:

"Gosh, what a nifty foundation I've built for myself, it's so cute and perfect and adorable and grand that I wish I could preserve it just the way it is,"


"Damn, look at this lopsided, poor excuse for a foundation I tried to build for this project. It is so ugly and upsetting I can't even look at it long enough to clear it away,"

...You'll never get anywhere.

The raven, an unwelcome and frankly disturbing gift given by the bleak December night, reminds us that now is not the time for harvest (killing), nor is it for remembering, but for stillness and the 'beingness' of being dead. It's dark. It's cold. Nothing that isn't supposed to be alive now is.

What does this mean? This means that whatever you worked to manifest in the light of the year should have been harvested by now, and given thanks for by now. And what was discarded should be left to do the un-work of being dead: that is, putrefaction. It is from this decay and primal soup that we call forth new life that will grow under the light that slowly returns after the Winter Solstice. December is a month of irreconcilables, but that is the greatest mystery of all. It is the 'coagule' of the alchemists, taking the putrefied remains of organic substance and reassembling its elements into something completely new.


The narrator of "The Raven" has his inner knowing. He knows he can learn about the mystery of death and where Lenore is if he just goes outside, leaves his incongruent chamber of morbid dwelling (no pun intended) and accepts the death, dark and stillness of December. He even seems to know that he's as stuck as the 'unhappy master' he imagines taught the raven to speak.

But in the end he tries to expel the raven from his familiar little morose hamster-wheel of out-of-season thoughts. And like a messenger sent from his higher self, the raven plants itself until -- if -- the narrator ever "gets" it. With its maddening one-word vocabulary, the raven is a reflection of the narrator's own stasis and a reminder that while true death brings about change and new life, stasis sets the stage for nothing but desolation.

If, this December, you find yourself in the place of the narrator, remember: if you don't feel like sharing your room with the raven, just open the door and walk out into the dark and the cold, accepting the season. Like the plants who have returned their energy to the earth, seemingly incapable of ever returning to life, lie down and sleep deeply. Get rest now, because after the longest night, it will be your job to dream dreams of the new year.

"O Night you black wet-nurse of the golden stars! From this darkness all things that are in this world have come as from its spring or womb."

-- Philalethes, Magia Adamica, 1650


Woodcuts above by Gustave Doré, 1884.

Where the Wild Things Are (or, When Things Go Pleasantly Against Your Expectations)

A peridot-colored May froggie near one of the water gardens.

I spent last weekend at Ima’s farm, a welcome respite from the city and work. I’d been having a hard time getting back into my routine headspace after returning from my wonderful trip to California (adult summer camp, as I described it to my friend and teacher Ben), and the idea of going deep into the somewhat familiar Midwestern woods and walking, singing, writing alone – seemed just what the doctor ordered.  Ima was hosting the first-year herb students’ inaugural trip to her farm.

But we third-year kids know our joe pye from our boneset, our blackberry from our red raspberry – so I figured we could goof off all weekend and maybe get away with a little light weeding.

Star Farmer and I arrived to find the campground full. (Herb students and massage students on the same weekend? We hadn’t had such a big group in years!) We went up to a spot we used to pitch our tents last year and found the mosquitoes hungry. Even worse – my barely used tent, a lone exhibit of rare evidence that I do sometimes make astonishingly poor investments, would not go up. (It is supported by inflatable rods. To inflate it I must labor away at a foot pump made in China. It is only good in theory. Like some kind of fickle performing animal, it only sets up for my husband. It is ridiculous. It is useless. Verily I say to thee, stick to traditional pole tents.)

In a show of solidarity (and maybe because he, too, had had enough of the mosquitoes), Star set his sleeping quarters up along with mine in the big upper room of Avalon Hall, an all-purpose building at the front of Ima’s land.

Ah, but what disappointment can’t be cured by good food and good spirits? We went out for dinner, anticipating the glorious tangy, mahogany, crispy-skinned duck at a restaurant in the nearest town, overpriced and ambitious in its culinary endeavors but boasting the most decent wine list for miles.

No duck. They didn’t even have the wine we enjoyed so much last time.

The next morning my irrepressible Ima showed up as I waited for a campstove frittata to set, and for my headache to go away. By now we had a small cadre of exactly five third-year students.

“Great, you guys can help me plant while I show the new students around!” Ima chirped, looking beautiful, sparkling, even. Apparently there were some several hundred seedlings waiting to go into the ground.

“You can be in charge of the planting,” she said to me.


What in the World is Imbolc? Plus, A Brief Primer on the Celtic Wheel of the Year

If you're familiar with the Celtic wheel of the year, you probably know that it's based on an agrarian cycle. And while most people reading this are probably not farmers or particularly tied in with the growing seasons of the earth, the archetypes upon which the wheel of the year rely are so deeply rooted in our collective consciousness that we understand quite easily how to connect the points on that wheel with our mundane and spiritual lives. For example, it makes sense that Ostara (spring equinox) is a time to begin new projects. It makes sense that Beltaine (May Day) is associated with fertility and flowers and romance. It makes sense that Litha (summer solstice) is a time for heightened activity, and that Yule (winter solstice) is a time for sleep and dreaming. Heck, even most people get that Lammas (August 1) has to do with giving that final push to projects already bearing fruit.
So. What's the deal with Imbolc?
Imbolc falls on Feb. 2. Its name comes from the Gaelic oimelc for "in milk." This refers to ewes, whose udders become full with milk at this time in preparation for their lambs, who usually arrive in the middle of February.
There. Do you now understand the meaning of Imbolc and why it deserves a cross-quarter spot on the wheel of the year?
Yeah, me neither.
Well, let's imagine ourselves living on a farm. It's been -- and still is -- a long, cold winter. The ground's probably still too hard to turn. Frost is not just a threat, it's a certainty. We've been sitting inside for months, living off the now dwindling supply we set aside in the larder in the Autumn.
Then, we look outside, and see the ewes. Their udders are swelling. That means lambs are on the way. That means we've got to get ready, to help get them ready. A new cycle is beginning, and it's signaled by the appearance of new nourishment, nourishment not stored over from last year -- milk.
I talked to Lugh about it this morning. He said that February was always an exciting time around the farm when the ewes were ready to deliver. If you knew one was ready to give birth, you could pen her up inside and try to make her comfortable, bringing her fresh hay and water. But you'd also have to be on the lookout for ewes who would deliver outside; if the newborn lambs did not get under shelter soon enough (either on their own or with human help), they might freeze to death. Some ewes needed help with breech births. Of course, adding a different element to the excitement was the payoff -- tiny lambs are just so cute!
So think about it -- after sitting inside all winter, all of a sudden it's time for action, watchfulness, and care. It's that first spark of activity that heralds the not-too-distant spring. And if an adorable, fleecy baby lamb not much bigger than a small dog is tough enough to make its debut before the last frost, chances are, it's not too early for you to make the first earnest steps into the new year as well.
At its most basic level, Imbolc is the very first sign of the spring to come. But unless you live on a farm or frequent the petting zoo, the sheep component is a bit removed from our everyday existence. Still, it's the most concrete way I've found of understanding why this holiday is important. Let's take a look at some other ways we can come to understand the deeper meaning of Imbolc.
Imbolc and the Goddess
As we turn the wheel of the year, we note the progress of the relationship between the goddess/Earth and the god/the Sun. We see the Sun awaken the Earth at spring equinox, and we watch their romance flourish (literally) at Beltaine. Over the rest of the year we see the Sun gain power, then begin to lose it, and as the Sun/god becomes more and more distant, the Earth/goddess ages into a crone and finally slips into a long sleep sometime after Samhain.
Chalicemadonna2 At Yule, we get a look at the goddess's dream: she is a mother again, giving birth to the new god, the Sun. Her dream comes true: the days begin to get longer after Dec. 21/22. Most of us have no trouble with this turn of the wheel because we are so used to the idea of Christmas and story of the birth of Christ, also known as "the light of the world."
But something happens to the sleeping, dreaming crone between December and February. She becomes young again.

Now that's what I call beauty sleep!
As goddesses go, Imbolc is most closely associated with Brigid, the Celtic goddess of the hearth, smithcraft and poetry. In other words, she's just the sort of person you want around when it's time to get working again after winter: she'll keep a pot of stew over the stove, help you look after the ewes and lambs, sharpen or fashion a new axe for chores in the season ahead, and she'll sing you songs while she does it. (Gee, Mary Poppins must have been based on Brigid.)
But more to the point: Brigid's name shares the same root with the word 'bride,' and I think that this is another juncture where we might get a little lost on the journey between Yule and Imbolc. How can the crone become young again? How can the mother become a virgin again?
There are a couple of threads to bring together when considering these questions, and to do so requires a magical mindset.
We become quite fixated on the Sun's progress and how we relate to it throughout the year. From our standpoint here on the Earth, the Sun moves around us. But we know that the Sun does not move. We move around it. The goddess, in fact, moves around the god. She circles, and while circling she turns; she continually transforms.
The goddess's Yule dream is both prophecy and reality. The way I look at it, the goddess -- that is, the divine feminine, in the most primal sense -- dreams to remember her true self, eternally bound to renewal and fertility. That first spark of dream-Sun calls her back to her tropism. As the divine feminine, she is the maiden, mother and crone, but she must become the crone to become the maiden, and the maiden to become the mother, and so forth. The dream calls forth the transformation. It calls a new reality that spirals out of the existing one. In essence, the goddess births her new, younger self.
How can I put it more clearly? If human thoughts can become things, certainly a divine dream can come true. Depending on the sort of magic you practice, you may create a 'spell' to effect some reality. (And yes, all you "The Secret" disciples, it's the same concept.) Whether or not your spell works has less to do with how well you speak it, or the ingredients you throw into the pot, than it does with how closely the reality you tried to induce was aligned with Truth (be that quantum physics, divine will, or fate -- whatever you want to call it, it is still the same unknowable, unnameable thing).
For example: against all odds, you triumph. You might shake your head and say, "Wow, I guess it was just meant to be." Well, the dream of the goddess that makes her young again at Imbolc is the dream of the ultimate "meant to be." Of course it comes true.
Imbolc is, for the Earth/goddess, perhaps the most profound (especially in its subtlety) manifestation of her power. It is a pity that we focus so much at Imbolc and at Yule on the rebirth and return of the male force, when the goddess's dream and transformation presents just as mysterious and illuminating opportunities for meditation on the true nature of magic and power.

Imbolc and the Change of Seasons, Elementally Speaking
In the Western mystery tradition, seasons cycle through elemental correspondences. Spring is Air -- think of its fresh, warm breezes, and the air needed to blow dead leaves away so that the sun and rain can renew the earth. Summer, of course, is Fire. Autumn is Water -- think of the sun descending in the west, at the end of the day, seemingly extinguished by the ocean. Winter is Earth, when all return to it for slumber. (Traditional Chinese Medicine folk, this is a different elemental system from the one we use in healing, so just bear with me here.)
We can see how one element transitions into another. Air fuels fire. It gives the oxygen and dryness needed for Fire to burn. This transformation represents the growing cycle; it is engendering. But as Summer turns to Fall, the consolidating cycle begins. Water overtakes Fire, gradually dampening its power. Earth contains water, draws it down, conserves it.
But here's another place we get tripped up at Imbolc: How do you go from the most dense element to the most etheric, rarified one? It is technically part of the growing cycle, but how does Earth engender Air?
Well friends, I'm still trying to come up with a satisfactory answer to that one. Obviously this is part and parcel of the dream and transformation of the goddess mentioned above, but elements are so... well, elemental, that you really have to define them in their own terms. I looked at Big Bang theory and entropy, the Kybalion's axioms of polarity, rhythm, vibration and causation, and how the elements as they correspond to the four classical archangels are laid out on the Tree of Life. All these provide important clues, I'm sure, but I couldn't see a neat little packaged answer in any of them.
But so far the thing that makes the most sense to me comes from my most rudimentary magical training. The element of Air, represented by the blade, cuts through Earth, separating it from itself. Air makes room for other elements. Adding other elements creates change -- new life, to be exact!
In the spring (the time of Air) we plough or spade rows into the soil (the element of Earth). Thus, by literally breaking up the earth we are breaking up Winter (the time of Earth). The rows separate earth from itself, and the air inside the rows makes room for sunshine (Fire), rain (Water), and of course, seeds.
Perhaps the way Earth "grows" Air is that it gives Air focused channels through which to travel; in other words, it gives Air direction and sound. During the time of Imbolc, the ground readies itself to be cleaved, readies itself to receive the Air of springtime. Again, it's an incredibly subtle but profound point of transformation.
Never mind that groundhog
By the time Imbolc rolls around, most people can see that the days are beginning to get noticeably longer. While the Sun, at this time of year, usually means more in terms of light than in warmth, it's relief enough.

All in all, I tend to look at this puzzling time of year as an opportunity to take a second crack at any new year's resolutions I made. Like the sheep and Brigid show us, the luxury of waiting is over; now is the time time for action! The goddess, the earth, begins to soften to make way for the breath of a new season and new life.

The wheel of the year gives many opportunities for renewal, but none quite so transformative as the one that comes at Imbolc. May you find a way to transform into your renewed, refreshed self. May all the happy dreams you dreamed during the Dark come true.

The St. Brigid's cross above was made by Lugh's cousin Seamus in Claremorris, Ireland. It hangs above our door year round. The statue of the Madonna and Child is from a reflective corner at the Chalice Well Garden in Glastonbury, England. The winterscape is of a farm in Western Illinois.

Elemental Divination in Glastonbury

A view of Glastonbury and Chalice Hill from atop the Tor.

It's been a too-long break here on Herbis Orbis. I have wanted so much to write, but have not had the time! I had a dream last night about my Granddad in Glastonbury, and knew that today was the day I would reflect upon my trip.
We arrived in England after an uneventful yet thoroughly pleasant flight (always the case with British Airways) and took a coach to Bristol. When we got there, what started out as a cool mist had turned into cold rain. After a mix-up with the local buses, I called Grandmum to let her know we weren't too far off. "Well welcome to this lovely English weather!" she exclaimed. She'd let us know in the weeks leading up to our arrival that the weather was quite nice, and she'd hoped it would last.
We pulled in front of the Town Hall perhaps at hour late. Lugh rang the house again, and Granddad let us know that Grandmum had just started down the hill. Soon we would be saved from the cold, dark and wet.
When we arrived at Grandmum and Granddad's place, it seemed as though we'd only just seen them a few weeks ago instead of in May of 2006. Zoe, their sweet chocolate lab, was there to greet us. We sat down to the usual cocktail hour with our wonderful hosts; out came the little glasses of sherry and a fancy tray of crisps. (I want to add here that the Brits do crisps -- that is, chips, to us Yanks -- so much better. Especially these, which were a delectable new discovery.) There hardly seemed to be any catching up to do... We just sat down as though we had never left. Granddad was in good shape -- I suppose he wouldn't mind me saying so, considering he is 92, and Grandmum spritely yet soft as ever.  Zoe... well, Zoe'd put on a few pounds. She'd become even more Granddad's girl than I thought she would when I first met her as a pup seven years ago. He fed her crisps when Grandmum wasn't looking.
They told us that a friend of theirs had just written a book on Frederick Bligh Bond, the architect and archeologist who excavated the Abbey ruins using occult methods such as automatic writing and seance. They were surprised that I knew who Bligh Bond was. We got a bit of neighborhood gossip regarding the book's release, as well as some trivia on Bond. This was the first of what turned out to be a rather Bligh Bond-themed journey.
We left our hosts -- I call them our hosts, but really, they are family -- for a pub meal at the Mitre and a look at the town center in the wet November darkness. I felt the first cold I was to feel that would largely define the trip as very, very different from my usual sojourns here in springtime. The cold was just a disguise though, for a thoroughly different Glastonbury.
The lion's head spigot at Chalice Well.

Water: The Chalice Well
The only thing we promised to bring home from this trip (and frankly, the only thing we could afford to bring home, considering the weakness of the US dollar at the moment), was water from the Chalice Well. We wanted to be sure we didn't forget and find ourselves running about frantically on the last day, so we decided to make it our first destination on our first morning in town.
A bit jet-lagged, I remember I got a a little grumpy with Lugh on the way into the Chalice Well Gardens. I can't remember exactly why, but it was probably because he was walking too fast (anyone who knows him will attest that even on pleasure trips he attacks the sidewalks, country lanes, and even rocky precipices like a mountain goat on crack). I walked straight to the Well and sat down. As usual, the keepers of the Garden had adorned the Well with flowers and berries from the gardens, and as always, she (the Well) looked beautiful. I gazed for a long time, going into meditation. Lugh sought out a secluded bench in a nearby stone grotto area. Contrary to my usual shutterbug nature, I brought out my sketchbook and pens, and began to draw the Well before me. It was the perfect meditation and the activity softened my sleep-deprived nerves. During the yang time of the year -- or at least, on all the other trips I have made to Glastonbury, which have been in May and June -- the Chalice Well Gardens have not been my absolute favorite place to visit, even though I have had at least one very powerful experience here -- one which ultimately drew me to my teacher and mentor, Ima. But on this day I listened to the water running deep inside the Well, and looked at her, really studied her for the first time, as I worked in my sketchbook. I wondered if initiations really were carried out deep inside the Well's five-sided cavern, but this thought only lasted fleetingly. I was in a receptive mood.
By the time I had completed my drawing, I had an idea. Lugh and I would pull a tarot card at each of the main sacred sites around Glastonbury, and these cards would address some aspect of our interior lives. The card each of us drew at the Chalice Well reflected our relationship to the feminine -- home, receptiveness, yin qualities -- and how we should develop this in the coming year. I walked over to where Lugh was meditating and we each drew a card. I pulled the Ten of Cups. Doesn't get much better than that! Also, it was a far cry from what I was feeling when I first entered the gardens, but a better measure of what I wanted and was feeling when I finished meditating at the Well. It was the perfect picture of what I would like to see for the both of us in 2008.

What is left of Glastonbury Abbey's transept.

Earth: The Abbey
Now, the Abbey has always been my favorite place to while away the hours in Glastonbury. It is green, and quiet, and somehow it seems warmer than other outdoor places in the town. I love walking among the ruins of the abbey itself, but to be honest I prefer to just sit on the grass or on the leftover foundations of where the cloisters used to be.  The energy of the place is quite unlike anything I've ever felt before, anywhere. Perhaps it is the imprint of the monks' devotion and prayerful routines that outlasts even the violence done there by Henry VIII and his soldiers.
We took our time walking the already familiar place, always seeing things we hadn't noticed before. The holly trees were all in bright fruit, one of the only reminders of the time of year. We found the words 'JESVS MARIA' engraved on a stone to the right of a door to the Lady Chapel -- an up til then unnoticed detail brought to our attention by Sig Lonegren (more about him later). He believes, as many do here, that the "Maria" here does not mean the Virgin. For the first time, we explored the wildlife area (badgers!) and duck pond, where a two-year-old shoved me out of the way (on an empty bridge, the place she wanted to stand was obviously the spot where I had stopped). We took a few photos and then sat in the Refectory (well, on the grass where it once was) and enjoyed the sun's warm rays.
The card drawn here would represent our relationship to spirituality. For me? Eight of cups. I have been feeling like the figure in that card for quite some time now, about my day job. It served a different me, and I do not feel bitter toward it at all; but it is time to move on, if I can just summon up the courage!
Before leaving, we stopped to look at the gargoyles around the monks' kitchen. I wanted to draw them but it had begun to get dark. We were surprised to see that four hours had passed and it was already time for dinner.

Lugh watching the sunset from Wearyall Hill.
Air: Wearyall Hill
On the night before the full moon, we decided to take a walk up to Wearyall Hill, at the other end of town from where we were staying with Grandmum and Granddad. We went up at about four in the afternoon. The sun was low and casting a golden hue along the crooked spine of the hill and its most famous resident, the Holy Thorn (pictured in the previous post). This hawthorn, fabled to be a descendant of the tree sprung from Joseph of Arimathea's staff, was bedecked as usual in colorful pilgrims' ribbons and other airy offerings, fluttering in the chilly wind. We chose a bench near Wearyall's crest and just sat there in the sunset, watching the endless parade of dogs of all sizes, bounding up the hill ahead of their owners, on their afternoon walk. All except one tiny smoke-grey terrier named Guinness, who was wearing a sweater and walked even behind his master, who continually turned back to encourage him along. I couldn't decide if he looked lost, or bewildered, or annoyed, but certainly he looked cold. I could sympathize; the day before we'd taken a day trip out to Wells and I caught such a penetrating chill in the town's famed cathedral that it took sitting a long time before the Mitre's fireplace to shake it.
Soon a huge, watery moon appeared low above the horizon and we decided to see if we could wait til after dark to see it in all its glory. The temperature was dropping rapidly and it was certainly very windy, as it often is along the ridge of Wearyall Hill. As I mentioned in a previous post, I like to imagine that a heavenly force comes down through the Tor, down its slopes, echoes down the Chalice Well and moves her Gardens, whistles through the ruined Abbey's arches, then, picking up speed, soars off the back of Wearyall, carried on the wind -- or perhaps, carrying the wind. From here we could see the whole town and directly opposite us, the Tor, with the just about full moon rising next to it; behind us was the setting sun; and down either side of the hill endless farmland and the road leading out of Glastonbury toward Bath and Wells.


A view from the crest of Wearyall. See if you can find our shadows!
I thought about Joseph of Arimathea, and decided that the Wearyall card would reflect our journey and ultimate destination -- the place where we would one day arrive, lean wearily but contentedly upon our staff, and say, "Yes. This is definitely it." For my own card, I also intended it to mean what brought me to this place -- Why always Glastonbury? We decided we'd better draw our cards before the light was gone. I drew the Magician. Interesting. Interesting and a bit intimidating!
Starlings flew in staggered groups above our heads once the sun had disappeared.The moon looked huge as it rose and the sky turned purple and mauve around it. Soon it was quite dark and the moon looked about as beautiful as ever. It was a lucky thing we didn't wait another day. This was the only clear night we'd have for the rest of the trip.

Fire: The Tor
The morning of our final full day in Glastonbury, Grandmum told us that she was walking Zoe in the countryside around the Tor and had lost sight of her ("Probably doing her usual thing, eating cow poo," Grandmum said of Zoe, who was dozing away in her bed in the kitchen). Grandmum decided to keep on walking, knowing that the dog would catch up with her once she realized she was gone. Wondering herself where Grandmum had gone, Zoe let out a bark. Grandmum turned to see "a rather miserable-looking bullock" standing not far away. Zoe's bark set off the bull, which went chasing after Zoe, who was running straight for Grandmum. The two of them charging at her, she had to quickly climb over some barbed wire into a neighboring pasture. Zoe got the picture and began to run in another direction to get the bull away from Grandmum. "Zoe saved the day!" I said over my fried eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms and sausages, to which Grandmum responded that it was Zoe who started the trouble in the first place. She said she went right to the farmer's house to let him know that he had a disgruntled bull separated from the rest of the herd, being a menace on the public footpaths.
That night, the night after the full moon, I persuaded Lugh to climb the Tor once again by dark (as I did the first time I had brought him to this place, a year and a half ago). As we walked the dark lanes to the Tor, I had completely forgotten Grandmum's story... Until we arrived at the gate and saw the "front yard" of the Tor absolutely covered in cows. Well, that's an exaggeration. I should say it was netted with a loose matrix of bovines. I couldn't tell which of these were bullocks, though. I've walked naively past cows and what turned out to be bullocks in the meadows of Glastonbury before -- an action I never repeated after walking through a pasture of them in Ireland with Lugh and having him tell me to "Go quickly and quietly and don't make eye contact." Lugh, having grown up on a farm, is a person whose opinion I trust when it comes to livestock. He said that sometimes cows get spooked -- or are just plain ornery -- and may charge you.
I stood at the gate and looked at the cows. I could hear some of them breathing in the chilly night air. The moon was invisible, tucked away under clouds. It was very dark. Some rodent was squirming around noisily in the National Trust box. I wondered if there might be these terrifying nocturnal grazing cows all the way up the Tor, as they are known to be (in the daytime, at least).
"I don't think I want to go in there," I told Lugh.
"Why? They're just cows," he said. "They're probably sleeping."
"They're not sleeping, look at them!"
"Cows sleep standing up," Lugh said.
"Yes, that's where the sport of cow tipping comes from."
"Cow tipping? You flip a sleeping standing cow? Where's the sport in that?" I asked.
"It'll be fine," he said. "We won't tip any cows. Come on."
I held my breath as we walked past the scary cows. Once we were on the steps on the steep side of the Tor, all was fine (although in my paranoia I did wonder if a cow might come suddenly over the side of the hill at any moment).
TormoonWe reached the top and found that we had the Tor and its tower all to ourselves. The wind rushed through St. Michael's. We sat on one of the benches inside (there are only two, facing each other), and looked out what was left of a window, high on the wall, which was curiously and very accurately shaped like a monk. You could see his tonsure, his cingulum, and what appeared to be a lamp in his hand, much like the one the Hermit holds.
We sat for awhile. I took off my mittens and pulled out my cards. The tarot keys drawn on the Tor were to respresent our relationship to the masculine -- ambition, drive, force, and what we were to do with these. I drew the Fool. The Fool! Of course! I laughed. I could blindly step off the side of the Tor and take my chances, begin at zero, start over again. Just like the others, it was perfect.
Lugh sang a blessing in the Tower, a blessing and a prayer for Abbot Whiting, the last abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, who was drawn and quartered, and hung on the Tor. A pilgrim appeared in the doorway during the song, then left.
When we exited the tower, we again found ourselves alone on the wind-whipped hill. We started to go down when I decided I couldn't leave. I hadn't done my energy exercises on the Tor this whole trip. Lugh let me have my 20 minutes outside the tower to do my Middle Pillar and send the energy coursing through the other sacred sites.

After that we started down the hill again. We were only a few steps from the top when Lugh noticed that the clouds were beginning to part. We decided to stay put until we saw the moon.
"Ah, there she is," Lugh said after a few minutes. We could see the moon through a few streaks in the clouds. Then, enough of them parted so that we could see her whole face. And that's when something curious happened.
"Look, it's a rabbit!" I said. A hole in the clouds passing across the moon was shaped exactly like a lean, running hare!
"Well I'll be damned. That is a rabbit if ever I saw one!" said Lugh, who usually doesn't go in for my 'visions.' But this one was unmistakable. Ears, legs, tail and all.
We watched the celestial hare drift slowly across the moon, lit from the inside, as if it had swallowed the moon itself.
We discussed the omen's meaning as we descended the Tor. The first thing that came to my mind was fertility. The first that came to Lugh's was courage.
"Courage regarding cows," I joked.
I asked him if courage implied hardship. He didn't think so.

Portrait of Granddad as a schoolboy, probably about 1924.

Spirit: Home
I love Grandmum and Granddad. When I first met them in 2000, I never imagined that we would ever share such a close relationship, and I am so grateful for it now. We were able to enjoy several evenings of cocktails with them. Grandmum made us Thanksgiving dinner on that Thursday -- I think I may forego turkey for duck next year! She is such a great cook. They asked us what Thanksgiving was about. "Is it giving thanks that you were rid of us?" We explained that we do have a holiday for that, but that Thanksgiving commemorated the pilgrims' first harvest feast in what would one day become the United States.  After dinner we teamed up against the two of them for a game of parlor bagatelle, which is sort of the precursor to pinball -- spring loaded plunger, several silver balls, nails and points, but no flippers. We won by a narrow margin, if I remember correctly. We knew the competition was fierce when Granddad, whose medication dulled his digital reflexes, responded to Lugh's cheerleading with "Oh, do shut up."
We were also honored to share traditional English Sunday lunch with them and their friend, W., who was once keeper of the Chalice Well and the opposite of boring. After another of Grandmum's feasts, we left Granddad to a nap and Lugh accompanied all us girls (me, Grandmum, W. and Zoe) on a long walk over the peat marshes in a part of town we would never have otherwise seen. I got a chance to walk and talk one-on-one with W., who shared with me a little bit of her amazing romantic spiritual journey with her late husband, which took her to many places all over the world. She did mention to me that Dion Fortune, with whom I am quite fascinated, did not "do much" for her; she suggested I read Alduous Huxley's "Perennial Philosophy" and go from there. I will, but I know that I still have much to absorb from Ms. Fortune, and that my connection to her is something I will need to understand better in the future.
Away from town and marked a protected place for wildlife, the marshes were very flat and very quiet. A few "travelers" (Americans would call them Gypsies) had set up camp in a few spots. A few signs about the prehistoric life of the area were posted. It was so silent that we could hear the starlings make their sunset flight home over our heads -- a truly remarkable sound, the sound of hundreds of wings beating at once.


The trail through the peat bogs.
It is always bittersweet to say goodbye, especially to Granddad, because I have to admit that I do wonder how long it will be before I return and whether or not he will be there when I get back. He's in very good shape, without a doubt, but... well, I just feel a pain in my heart about him sometimes. When we said good night on our last day we also said goodbye to him; he said to me, "Tomorrow morning if you want to give me another hug I'll be in my bedroom" to which Grandmum said, "There will be none of that!"
As Grandmum put us on the bus before dawn the next morning, she said, "Next time you come I hope there will be three of you." Fertility and courage of the cosmic hare indeed!
Our shadow through one of the Abbey arches.

Glastonbury in the Dark of the Year
I suspected that Glastonbury and its sacred sites would be quite different from the way I experience them in the spring, and I was right. The experience this time around was indeed very inward; and if I were to attempt to put it into words, it would be that at this time of year a pilgrim does not draw energy away from places like the Tor or the Chalice Well, but rather, gives. While the weather was by no means inclement, it was hard to engage with our surroundings the way one does when the sun is out and the breezes are warm. It is no easy thing to just stand at the top of a hill and leisurely take in a view. On this trip I was often so busy pulling my collar up or my hat down or my mittens on while walking that I couldn't appreciate what was going on around me until I reached my destination. The days were short and chilly, but everything was still so green and flowers were blooming all around.
I didn't feel motivated to perform any rituals or visit out of the way places that I normally would. This trip was really more about sitting still.
It was sort of sitting still that allowed us to synchronicitously meet author and lecturer Sig Lonegren. We met the geomancer and dowser at Gigio's, an Italian restaurant in 'downtown' Glastonbury. A resident of Glastonbury for 20 years (I think I have that right!) and a British citizen, Sig is originally from our side of the pond. He overheard our accents and came over to talk to us. We talked about the history of the town, about cosmic "coincidence,"  what Sig calls "daysigns," the darker origins of common nursery rhymes, dowsing, and Druidry. He also told us about the labyrinth he helped to set up in front of St. John's Church on Magdalene Street. After some time Lugh lamented the state of the Abbey and said he wished it could be rebuilt (this was one of those many times on the trip that Bligh Bond and his work came up in conversation). Sig said that he believed the reason nothing could be done, and the reason so many things fail to gel in Glastonbury, is because of the "black magic" that had Abbot Richard Whiting executed on the Tor during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. The Abbot's head was placed on a spike at the entrance to the Abbey, and parts of his body were sent to other monasteries in the surrounding lands as a warning.
The Tor had never felt a particularly tranquil place to me, but the story of Abbot Whiting's fate is some bad, bad mojo. Perhaps the monk in the window in St. Michael's Tower is Abbot Whiting, ever watchful over the Tor (and the northwest side of the town). It turns out that he was beatified in 1895 by Pope Leo XIII. Perhaps what we need to lift the curse of any "black magic" is to get him canonized. My guess is that the Cause for Sainthood of Abbot Whiting is not exactly an active one. I would also guess that any type of healing taking place in Glastonbury is more likely to be attributed to some New Age mechanism than the intercession of Blessed Whiting. His feast day is Nov. 15, which is just a few days before we arrived.
Sig gave me a present before he left the restaurant -- a simple metal pendulum. I look forward to working with it! And if I'm good, I'll keep in touch.
You may remember Antony (the Rainbow Man) from my Nov. 19 post. No sign of him, but the day before we left we looked at a shop window display of rich silks, zabutons and more brass singing bowls than you can imagine. At the center was a mannequin wearing Antony's rainbow hat and sweater, complete with matching rainbow scarf and mittens.
All in all, a wonderful, magical journey to Glastonbury as usual -- or unusual, as the case may be. I know now that I will have to see the town during winter and summer as well. In the meantime, it gives me a clear Autumn message (Autumn being the time of letting go):
To find bliss:
Let go; then,
Focus; then,

Return home.