Easter Is Not Named After Ishtar, And Other Truths I Have To Tell You

Renna: Richard Dawkins is not my go-to guy for goddess lore.  And just to be super-clear, I didn’t write this, I’m simply reblogging it.

The Belle Jar

If there is one thing that drives me absolutely bananas, it’s people spreading misinformation via social media under the guise of “educating”. I’ve seen this happen in several ways – through infographics that twist data in ways that support a conclusion that is ultimately false, or else through “meaningful” quotes falsely attributed to various celebrities, or by cobbling together a few actual facts with statements that are patently untrue to create something that seems plausible on the surface but is, in fact, full of crap.

Yesterday, the official Facebook page of (noted misogynistandeugenicsenthusiast) Richard Dawkins’ Foundation for Reason and Science shared the following image to their 637,000 fans:

Naturally, their fans lapped this shit up; after all, this is the kind of thing they absolutely live for. Religious people! Being hypocritical! And crazy! And wrong! The 2,000+ comments were chock-full of smug remarks…

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Sun Conjunct Venus, Now!

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March 29, 2013 – Venus is conjunct the Sun!  Whee!  Gorgeous Evening-Star action will be coming soon!

Last year, on June 6, 2012, Venus quit her Evening Star status, passed across the face of the Sun (RARE!) and moved into her Morning Star position, rising ahead of the Sun each day.  Now – after 9.5 months as a Morning Star – Venus’ orbit has taken her around behind the Sun (as shown above, in a view not visible to the naked eye).  Now, from our Earthly perspective, the two are in line.  Conjunct.

Over the coming weeks, Venus continues in her orbit, moving onward, right-to-left, counterclockwise behind the Sun, getting further to the left/east of the Sun, as seen by us Earthlings.  That means Venus comes back into view as an Evening Star.  She’ll be visible again in mid-May.  Here’s some up-coming 2013 Venus-coolness:

  • Mid-May: Evening Star Venus becomes visible.  Not a specific date, so just watch… this will be Venus’ heliacal setting* reappearance.
  • May 26: Venus, Mercury and Jupiter form a tight triangle of mutual conjunctions, (hopefully) visible in the western sky just after sunset.
  • June 10: Mercury, Venus and a very slim New Crescent Moon, low in the WNW at sunset.
  • June 20: Summer Solstice, AND Sun conjunct Jupiter, AND Venus and Mercury conjunct near Gemini’s Castor and Pollux.

– from Renna Shesso

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* The heliacal setting is when a celestial object first becomes visible just after sunset in the western sky.

North Star, spinning, “baa-ram-ewe…”

frigg-and-fulla

I read a post recently from someone looking for “cruelty-free” wool, coming (I guess) from an assumption that all human dealings with domesticated animals are certain to be cruel and exploitive.

Wool isn’t like that. Sheep-shearing doesn’t hurt the sheep any more than a haircut hurts us. It’s done in the spring as the weather warms and the lambs will be arriving. The shearing creates better sanitary conditions for the lambing. And that thick wool “coat” is hot, so the sheep don’t mind having it removed. Another plus: wool is a renewable resource.

Once we just wore animal hides (and perhaps a fig leaf or two). Gradually we clever humanoids figured out how to twist plant fibers together – linen, nettle, the fibrous long-stalked stuff.  Eventually a shift from plant fibers to wool changed what we wear.  Wool takes dye much better than linen, so our clothing became more colorful, and color-based weaving patterns evolved.

Nowadays, many women are spinning from their own sheep – it’s like the organic gardening of fiber production – and their sheep are treasured and well-treated as the precious resources they are. Wool-production can be a happy symbiotic human-and-critter relationship.

The sheep-raising, shearing, cleaning, combing, spinning are like the farming side of food production (laborious, messy and seasonal/slow), while knitting (and weaving, crochet) are like the delicious and tactile cooking/dining side of it.

Check out Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. It’s a real eye-opener about the role of sheep and wool in human creativity, and about human history in general.

Like many crafts, the fiber arts could also have magical connotations:

“Spinning was associated with woman’s concentration and craft, and with meditation and magic.  To spin with intention was a way to magically direct one’s energies… The word seidhr refers to early Norse and Germanic shamanic trance and prophesying, but the word also connotes “string,” “cord,” “snare” and “halter.”  In some seidhr-work, the intentions of the völva, the female shaman, are sent forth to seidha til sin, to “attract by seidhr,” as if snaring something and pulling it to you, manipulating from afar.  The völva’s staff of office – her seidhstaf – looked like an ornamented distaff…

“The North Star was considered the point of Frigg’s spindle, as if all creation is spinning forth from Her…”      – from A Magical Tour of the Night Sky *

This is some of what I think about when I gaze at the North Star.  And when I knit.

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* Spinning text © Renna Shesso 2011

Mysteries whispered by the trees

dodona720

“Zeus had on oracular shrine at Dodona, first dedicated to Great Goddess Dione but later shared with Zeus.  Although not as famous as the oracle at Delphi, Dodona was the most ancient Grecian oracle site, in use since about 2000 BCE.  Its priestesses and priests lay on the ground among the trees and received prescient knowledge from the rustling of leaves overhead. Rather than announcing what would come, these oracles focused on right action – how best to respond to what the future brought – which is still the most useful type of prophetic information.” *

Although not at Dodona (at least not in this lifetime), I’ve done this, as  I’m sure many of us have, opening our consciousness to the sounds of nature, listening with the heart.  At Dodona, the particular trees were believed to be oaks (sacred to Zeus) or beeches.  For me, cottonwoods and their “cousins” among the poplars tend to be the talkers.

* from A Magical Tour of the Night Sky, Renna Shesso © 2011

Oracle of Zeus at Dodona - exact discription f...

Oracle of Zeus at Dodona – exact discription follows nearby (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fire Ceremonies: Igniting Change

Campfire_Pinecone

We stand around the fire bowl, drums pounding, flames leaping, and – one by one – step forward to discard and bid farewell.

Our objects look like sticks and colored paper and string, but looks can be deceiving: They’re more than that.  Having asked in shamanic journey what we personally needed to bid farewell to, we’ve each created an object as directed by Spirit and then infused the object with intention, with energy, with the very essence of that which we release.  That stuff, that baggage, is now literally out of me and into my object.  I consign it to the flames for complete transformation.

Fire is cathartic. Whether it comes from the sky as a lightning strike or from this snazzy foot-long lighter, we know on a visceral, non-verbal level that Fire is powerful.  It can be our friend, or it can mess with us.

Today we engage with Fire as an ally.  This fire was laid, kindled and fed with clear intention, specifically to receive and transform this old psychic debris we’re releasing.  Be gone!  And it is gone.  We can feel the shift.

*   *   *

That was Saturday.  Last night I watched another, different fire ceremony.  More people were present, the circle was on a beach, and the items discarded were notes written on the spot, spontaneously. People read their notes aloud, then handed them into the flames.  Fire was a good ally to them, too: As the group finished, participants were dabbing their eyes.  On camera.

This fire was on Tabatha’s Salon Takeover, a show that I happily consider guilty-pleasure-TV.  In this episode, plainspoken Australian trouble-shooter Tabatha gathered the dysfunctional beauty salon’s owner and employees on a nearby beach, and they use Fire to help purge and heal their accumulated ill-feelings.

Which version did I prefer?  The one I took part in, of course: heat, drums and hollering, and my clothes still smell like smoke.  But why should fires and ceremonies be just for us pagans?  I generally see practices like these coming into the mainstream as a great thing, because these practices work.  Let’s all take our healing where we find it, and wherever we find room to create it.

More people with more healing = a more healed world.

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Campfire-Pinecones image from Emeldil at en.wikipedia

Spirals, and Spring fever

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Almost Spring!  This Wednesday is the Spring Equinox, the halfway point in the Sun’s journey between Winter’s southern-most extreme (short days, long nights) and Summer’s northern-most point (long days, short nights).  Equinoxes, this one in March and its opposite in September, mark the midpoints, when day and night are equal.

Those spirals above? That’s the “Sun Dagger,” a petroglyph on Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon, a remote site in New Mexico.  Angled noon light marks the sun’s seasonal passage: at Summer Solstice slicing the large spiral’s center (top), at each Equinox bisecting the smaller spiral (center), and at Winter Solstice bracketing the large spiral (bottom).

The Solstices are times of contrasting extremes: heat or cold, light or dark, sun far north or sun far south.  The Equinoxes are – in sun-terms – times of balance.  Days and nights are of equal length, and the Sun is “balanced” along the horizon: It rises due East and sets due West.

Chaco Canyon and its extensive ruins are something of a monument to Equinoxes, with alignments to that twice-annual sun-balance embedded throughout the vast site.  Chaco was also the “only culture known in the world to align their buildings to the Moon’s cycle.”*

Spring Equinox is a spring-feverish time as we break out of Winter.  Here in the Rocky Mountain West, Ostara can bring new buds or blizzards, or both.  Mama Earth kicks off Her blanket of snow, and starts to stretch and wake up… and then maybe curls back under Her snow-covers again for a few days.  But from Wednesday onward, the days will be longer than the nights… She’ll be wide awake and leaping up soon enough.

On Wednesday, I’ll watch sunrise and sunset, and note my shadow’s shape at noon.  Balance.  But meanwhile, the weather can’t make up its mind.  The winds are wild and the clouds are crazy… well, me, too.  Spring fever sets in, an undercurrent of anti-hibernation sensory awareness.  So I’ll explore my imbalances and move gently to adjust them, but I might enjoy them, too.  “Dance like no-one’s watching…”  The world is new again.

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* Anna Sofaer, quoted in the video “The Mystery of Chaco Canyon.”  More on Chaco, and understanding and working with Moon and Sun cycles in A Magical Tour of the Night Sky.  Chaco Canyon is an Ancient Puebloan site, c. 850-1140 BCE, and is designated a National Historic Park, covering nearly 34,000 acres.

Saturn – Casting Circles, Setting Boundaries

320px-John_William_Waterhouse_-_Magic_Circle

I saw Saturn this morning, a bright jab of light in the pre-dawn, south-western sky, and a nice bonus while rolling the recycle bin out to the curb.  For eons, this slow-moving planet marked the edge of the universe, and only the steady backdrop of the stars was farther away.  Until 1781, when Herschel discovered Uranus, Saturn symbolized the boundary, the end, finality, limits.

My inner hippy rankles at “limits.”  It took years to wrap my head around the idea that boundaries can be good.  Saturn’s broader themes?  Shape, edges, form, definition, limits (established, challenged, questioned, exceeded, discarded).  Limits as “good boundaries” and personal identity in general.  These aren’t bad things.

When I cast a circle, I’m defining space. The line is drawn.  The magical circle is a vessel, a container formed to hold energy for a particular use.  We’re embraced here, outside of time, for the duration of a ritual, shamanic journey group, or healing ceremony.  Without the will and the ability to create sacred space as a purposeful energetic container, this work couldn’t take place.

In spiritual workings, we know with certainty that our well-defined circle, as a magical boundary, is not only acceptable but necessary. Why, then, is it so hard to carry some of this action into our personal lives, creating reasonable, healthy boundaries for ourselves?  If a circle can be cast magically for group use — even among relative strangers — why doesn’t this ability transpose more readily to setting personal boundaries?

Some people who would never violate the conventions of sacred ritual space (where group mores are powerful) may be disrespectful or oblivious about personal boundaries among individuals, one-on-one.  And some people — lots of us — can readily cast a formal group circle but aren’t as clear about casting a circle-of-self.  If my personal autonomy is ill-defined by me, it’s easily ignored by others.

Aren’t we, individually, distinct energetic containers as well?  This isn’t about whether we can have empathy with others, be open and friendly, or be emotional accessible.  It’s about knowing we have the right to choose to be open, or not, and to what degree.  Having healthy boundaries isn’t just a right, it’s a communal agreement toward personal sanctity and public civility.  It’s an opportunity to see myself — and each of us — as unique expressions of sacred space.

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The Magic Circle by John William Waterhouse, 1886

Ostara Egg-time, coming up…

ostara-egg1

There’s a kid version of Easter eggs: bright jelly beans and foil-wrapped chocolates (with “maple-flavored” creme filling, gack), hidden in the house or maybe outside, weather permitting.

And there is the designer version of Easter eggs, a la Martha Stewart: natural dye-stuffs used to subtly color the organic eggs laid by my own prize-winning hens… eggs not hidden but instead used to decorate a table laid for an intimate 20-person champagne brunch.  Right.

Somewhere in between these two there’s a happy pagan version.  It still involves organic eggs.  And probably chocolate.

Our group has been decorating eggs for nearly twenty years now.  Some are shown above.  Only the intensely red one was actually dyed.  The others shown are fertile, raw, natural, and decorated using colored pencils and metallic markers, focussed intentions and an occasional dash of glitter.  They’re blessed in ritual, taken home to personal altars.

Why the emphasis on eggs?  An egg is “born” twice: once when the hen lays it, and again when it hatches.  Excellent symbolism.

And excellent timing.  For our ancestors, eggs were scarce during the winter months — hens need sunlight (and the Vitamin D it provides) to produce eggshells, so back then, when the hens began laying plentifully again, Spring had really returned.  (Factory farms with artificial light sources now put eggs in the grocery stores year around.)

While we tend to associate eggs with birds, remember that eggs are also laid by snakes.  By shedding their old skins, snakes symbolize regeneration and transformation.  Like other hibernating creatures, snakes begin reawakening in Spring.  They also present an alternative to all the seasonal cutesiness, though, alas, I’ve yet to see a chocolate snake.

Tarot, tra-la! Tarot!

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A new series of Tarot classes starts this evening.  Whee!  I love the Tarot and I love sharing what I’ve learned by teaching others – it always brings new insights and realizations.  Tarot has numbers, recurring themes within the suits, so many ways to convey meaning, but for me (the Art Major me) Tarot always comes back to the pictures.

Language is great – this writer tends to think so – but pictures…   Pictures go to one portion of the brain, while language gets routed to another area.  The image-storing brain-zone lets us think in pictures – and symbols and colors and all those bright and shiny visual ways – while the verbal-managing brain-zone handles the words and language.  Both brain-areas are great, but clearly they’re different.  And since that visual-area is designed for images, why not give it some?

Okay, here’s seventy-eight of them.

Sometimes, as we come to have more and more stored information about the Tarot in our heads, including how we might be able to verbalize these Tarot concepts to clients, we can forget to just look at the pictures.

Clients – especially those seeing the cards for the first time – certainly don’t forget to look.  The images are fascinating, engaging, intriguing, perhaps scary or disquieting, maybe euphoric and encouraging.  The images can be fraught with meaning more intensely personal to that client than all the stuff I’ve committed to memory.  Even if I know three dozen variations of the subtext of each card, the new client sees only the “storyboard.”  For them, until I speak, the pictures are doing all the work.

May I see with such fresh eyes each time I approach the cards.

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Strength card from the Visconti-Sfroza deck, c. 1451-1453.

Mad about sacred saffron

Saffron_Crop

“I’m just mad about saffron…”*

People are beginning to mention crocuses coming up.  I haven’t spotted any yet, but in Colorado these things change suddenly and on a yard-to-yard basis.  Always one of the first Spring flowers, insisting its way up through soil and snow, and with that dynamic deep yellow-gold stamen that it so eye-catching.  The real business portion of the plant, however, is the stigma, the thready reddish bits dangling between the petals of the true saffron crocus.   The picture above shows piles of the little things.  This portion of the crocus is laborious to harvest and has been used since antiquity, both good signs of its high value.

Prized as a flavoring and colorant in food, saffron is also a dye for fiber, yielding a yellow rich in both hue and price.  Its use as a pigment can be traced back as least 50,000 years; its medicinal uses have about 4000 years of recorded lore.  Early saffron-pickers are depicted in a wall painting rediscovered on Thera (aka Santorini), the island whose volcanic eruption decimated Minoan civilization around 1625-1600 BCE.  The Saffron-Gatherers, as they are now called, are graceful, elegantly dressed young women, moving across a hilly landscape dotted with crocus-groups, plucking the stigmas and eventually dumping their personal gathering baskets into a large keep.

Citing a Greek tradition of using saffron to treat menstrual pain, writer Elizabeth Wayland Barber views the Thera wall painting as a possible initiation scene, with the youngest girl helping others to pick something she would now have need of.  Barber’s book, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, focuses on the fiber arts and their creative development.  Barber notes that, to the ancient Greeks, “yellow apparel was considered appropriate for women only, including goddesses…”**

Among little Athenian girls, an ancient rite was the arteia, in which the girls dressed in yellow robes and yellow bear-cub costumes and danced to honor Artemis.  Ursa Major (the Big Bear) is Artemis’ former friend Kallisto, and Ursa Minor (the Little Bear) is Kallisto’s son Arcus. ***

What did that arteia-dance look like? Did each girl spin like the sky-Bears, like a little bear-cub-dervish?

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* Donovan, “Mellow Yellow,” 1966

** Women’s Work, page. 116

*** More about the arteia and Ursa Major in A Magical Tour of the Night Sky.

The saffron harvest photograph has been placed in the public domain by the artist.  See more.