As we turn the calendrical corner and begin to emerge from Winter, we dwellers in the Northern Hemisphere will see our days lengthen and nights shorten.
Here’s a simple working to waken us
Whether through shamanic journeying, pulling some tarot cards, taking a meditative walk outside, or any other means you have of visiting your “inner council” place of deep knowledge, a useful question for this time is:
“Show me how to best use the energies of the coming year…”
If you like, add a defining phrase, such as “…for the healing my heart needs” or “…to assist those around me” or “…to support hands-on positive change for Mother Earth” or…
Whatever we think we “ought to” ask about, shape this to what calls you…
And, as a potent follow-up question, ask
And, whether you’re asking this of a power animal, or your cards, or a cloud or flame with which you’re scrying, may you hear the answer in your heart
Because wounds healed in spirit
Whenever you celebrate Winter Solstice, ENJOY! This is a multi-day unfolding.
Rather than measuring minutes & seconds of daylight, our ancestors celebrated the return of the Sun as it began moving again, coming north as seen along the horizon at dawn or sunset. Their sacred sites were created to mark the solstice extreme points, from which you could then observe the return motion away from those points.
“Solstice” means the sun (Sol) standing still (stasis) – Thanks to Earth’s axis-tilt, the Sun reaches it southern-most point and then STAYS THERE for two-three days, before our tilt starts bringing it northward again. * Sun’s southern-most standstill dates, this year: December 21-22, 2015 at 23º S 26‘.
This year, the northern motion – the Sun’s return – can first be measured (though maybe not seen by the naked eye) on
* Wednesday, Dec. 23, as the Sun’s declination shifts to 23º S 25‘.
By Distaff Day, January 7, the Sun will have come a full 1º back northward – clearly noticeable if you’re using markers in the landscape (like Stonehenge), sunbeams within sites (like Newgrange or Fajada Butte) or shadow-casting markers (like a sundial). Marking the Solstice can be super-simple: Just mark where the rising or setting Sun’s light strikes a wall inside your home.
* Shortest days/longest nights:
December 18 thru 25, 2015 – 9 hours & 33 minutes
*Earliest Sunsets – the first week of December: 4:50pm
(before the Sun’s standstill)
*Latest Sunrises – the first week of January: 7:25am
(after the Sun’s standstill)
*Sun enters Capricorn, the so-called “first day of Winter”: Sorry, but thanks to the Precession of the Equinoxes, the Sun doesn’t get out of Sagittarius and into Capricorn until about January 20.
We measure lots of minutia now – length of days down to the second – because we can, but that doesn’t mean it needs to rule us, or our ritual dates and choices. Since I’m most thrilled with the return of the Sun and its light, I personally want to see that motion back to the north, but I’m also thrilled to celebrate with friends throughout this season, whatever the theme, date, or rationale.
Bless the root-growth and hibernation of the long dark nights, and bless the returning light!
Image: The Sun card from the “Golden Tarot of the Renaissance”
From the seasonal acknowledgement of dying plants and animals at the Autumn Equinox, we shift our focus to life/death transition on the human plane: Samhain. I think of this time as the Heart-of-the-Dark. While day and night were balanced at Mabon, the nights have grown longer still ever since the autumnal equinox and continue to do so until Yule. Samhain falls in the middle of this ever-darker time, celebrated on October 31st as All Hallow’s Eve, Halloween, with the related traditions of All Souls’ Day on November 2nd, celebrated as Dia de los Muertos in Mexico and in U.S. cities that boast a large Spanish population.
If you’ve never experienced Dia de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead—I recommend it highly. There’s a carnival/ spiritual mix to these proceedings that initially surprised me. Families go to graveyards to clean and decorate, then picnic near the headstones of their ancestors, setting out platters of the departed one’s favorite foods for the spirit now hovering nearby. Children receive skull-shaped candies with their own names written across the foreheads—muy macabre. These are mestizo traditions, a mixture of Aztec and Catholic. In Denver, a variety of activities are presented at several of the city’s alternative art galleries. Pirate: A Contemporary Art Oasis at West 37th Avenue and Navajo, mount a large annual celebration, hosting neighborhood activities such as altar-building and a candlelight procession, honoring those who have departed. Bright colors abound. Altars contain ofrendas—offerings—and are poignant, heart-rending, funny and mournful by turns, and often very beautiful. Fragrant copal scents the air, bands and dancers perform, and there’s a giant, wild piñata for the kids, followed by a grown-up version, stuffed with adult toys and treats. Such festive pursuits aside, the altar-building is very serious, often containing pictures of the deceased, perhaps details of their demise, objects that were significant to the person, as well as anything that might honor, amuse or entertain their visiting spirit.
I’ve gradually added elements of these Spanish traditions to my Wiccan practices. A group altar, constructed by one’s entire coven with photographs and significant objects, is a powerful sight. The favorite dishes of our deceased compatriots become our potluck feast, and spirit-servings are placed on a platter on the altar, which occupies most of the west wall. This year, my mother’s picture will join the others.
Though recent losses predominate, this can be extended to cover any passing from years past that still feels unfinished or raw—a miscarriage or abortion from years back, a grandparent’s death one was “sheltered from” as a child. This is a cathartic working and shouldn’t be rushed, and needs some resolution, some closure of its own.
To suitably release the grief and other emotions raised, this remembering can be followed by a ceremony called “Pushing Through” that comes from the Pomo Indian tradition. Participants arrange themselves so they’re all facing the same way (again, west is a logical choice) in a boat-shaped wedge. Those with drums or rattles begin pounding up a high, building energy; those without instruments act out the rowing, or sit and concentrate—all are in contact, touching at least at knee or shoulder. The energies build, until, on a verbal cue from whomever’s leading this, all slowly and forcefully lift their hands, as if boosting the spirits upward and releasing anything they may be holding onto that could keep these souls from fully crossing over.
Another wonderful theme comes a large public Samhain ritual in Berkeley, California, that I attended in 1995. It was created by women in the Reclaiming Collective. They ended their evening by inviting participants to call out the names of children born within the preceding twelve months. Balance! We say farewell to those who have passed and welcome back those who have reincarnated here on the earthly plane. This acknowledgement of new life gives a pleasing closure to Samhain rites, an emotional symmetry. It’s also something of a reminder on this particular holiday to consider not only mortality but fertility, as well as birth control measures (or lack thereof), as all these spirit visitors make their rounds. If there’s someone special in the Summerland you’d like to welcome back as a new life, this is a propitious time to issue your invitation. If you’d rather not accommodate a spirit aiming to reincarnate, well, use some care.
“I lay down all golden in time, and woke up vanishing…”
Though both Mabon and Samhain deal with themes of mortality, neither is simply a time of gloom and mourning. Worldwide and in every tradition, there are Goddesses and Gods waiting on the other side to welcome us to Their lands at the end of our earthly sojourn. The veil is thin now. We visit with those who have gone before, honor their memories, reconnoiter for our own future travels, welcome those new little ones who have chosen to return among us. And we savor the forms we inhabit, vanishing but yet-golden. In the midst of autumn’s decay, life is as sweet as a late apple, as fragrant and bright as the lingering marigolds, as pointed as a chill breeze nipping a bright-mooned night.
- Build altars to remember, grieve and honor our deceased
- Share the stories of those we’re remembering
- Feast and set out a plate for the spirits – use their favorite foods
- Life goes on: Acknowledge the preceding year’s births, welcome new arrivals
Quote: “Sweet Bird,” Joni Mitchell
A good resource: Chloe Sayer and Elizabeth Carmichael, The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico, (University of Texas, Austin in association with the British Museum: Austin, 1991). Muy gracias to Bob Luna for his generous assistance.
The lower photograph is of our Pirate gallery altar to mark the passing of my nephew Tom McKeever in 2007, created by his mother, brother and me.
She is well-pleased with the sound of rattles and of timbrels,
with the voice of flutes and the outcry of wolves and bright-eyed lions.
—“Homeric Hymn to the Mother of the Gods,” translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White
Is there any aroma so evocative as that of a fall morning? As a child, I associated autumn with the scent of burning leaves. Now, as that practice is relegated to the past, I realize the season has a scent of its own, independent of smoking leaf-piles along the curbs. The first hints of chill & damp are in the air, the remnants of gardens are past their peak, some late blooming flowers persist as the weather changes — all lend poignant fragrance to the crisp air.
As the sun continues to journey southward, our days shift and shorten. And their style of beauty is transformed. Rich autumn colors — gilded with orange and red, often dramatically contrasted by grayer skies — rival the lush beauties of spring with a bittersweet twist: we know these transitional hues will fade rather than spread. Our Mabon holiday marks the Autumnal Equinox, midpoint between Sol’s far north point at Litha and Her distant southerly position at Yule. Check your trusty Farmer’s Almanac. Generally the Equinox falls within a day either way of September 21, based on the Sun’s declination (crossing from north of the equator to south), though the actual days and nights of equal length come a few days later.1
As the final harvest festival, Mabon is often called the Witches’ Thanksgiving. The association of the name “Mabon” with this holiday seems to be of recent and rather loose origin.2 Mabon (“Mab” = son; “on” = deity) was the son of Modron (“Modr” = Mother; “on” = deity). Stolen from His mother and long-imprisoned, finally set free through the help of the animal kingdom, Mabon’s tale makes up a portion of the great Welsh epic, the Mabinogion.3 None of this seems clearly connected with this equinox, until we note that some sources parallel Modron with Demeter, whose Eleusinian Mysteries were celebrated in late September.4,5 Though the details of those rites remain tantalizingly elusive, we know they were closely connected with the Demeter-Kore myth. When Her maiden-daughter Kore is in the Lower World, grieving Mother Demeter withholds Earth’s fertility until Kore returns to visit the Earth’s surface for a portion of each year. The annual Eleusinian rites celebrated Demeter’s fruitful bounties, but their deeper impact concerned the Afterlife we would all eventually face. These ancient rites served to “make happier the hopes of those that participate therein concerning both the end of life and their whole existence.”6
The weeks from this holiday through to the winter solstice tend to be an introspective time for many people, as we pull in our energies and pull out the afghans. Are we mirroring Kore’s sojourn into the Lower World? This can be a time to meet and come to grips with one’s own inner darknesses. Isn’t this what Kore does in agreeing to spend time in the Lower World? The Maiden-daughter transforms: Through Her pilgrimage into the dark (which, in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, began when she coveted a “phallic” narcissus) Kore Herself becomes Mother.7 The seed of Kore’s mating with Hades gestates in this darkness.
In addition to fall-bright leaves and golden grasses as altar decorations, pomegranates and apples make symbolic and tasty appearances. An apple cut vertically through the center reveals a vaginal-looking view of the core; a horizontal cut through a second apple reveals a pentagram of seeds, an echo of the apple’s five-petalled blossom, flower turned to fruit, Maiden-Kore evolving into Mother-Demeter, holding the promise of new birth. Red apples hold the symbolic hues of the Triple Goddess: a sweet interior of white for the Maiden, a protective skin of red for the Mother, and those Crone-black seeds which will themselves transform to Maiden. From Scandinavia to Avalon, apples symbolized the Afterlife & rebirth.8
According to some versions of this story, it was Kore’s consumption of pomegranate seeds in the Lower World that obliged her to return to that realm annually. In the Bible’s Song of Songs, so rife with symbols, the Bride and Bridegroom come together in a garden of pomegranates. Rock lyrics of the 1950s and ‘60s notwithstanding, the point isn’t that a Maiden-girl-child is transformed into a Mother-woman through the magical wave of a male wand as his sexual love “makes a woman of her.” The point is that the union of female-male energies — physical, spiritual, psychological, emotional, the apparently contradictory elements within ourselves — is transformative. Pomegranate seeds eaten in circle make a wonderful symbolic step onto trance work: As we eat these seeds and accept our darknesses, what do we seek on our journey through the winter? What can our own dark currents teach us? What seeds of change are we harboring within ourselves?
Whether through husbandry or hunting, this is also the season when both domestic and wild animals were traditionally asked to give-away their lives for our larders. The farm animals that had consumed food since spring became food for the winter; wild animals that raised their young and grew plump through the summer were hunted most avidly in the autumn, before they migrated out of range or became scrawny from poor forage once the snows began.
Today we live in an age of year-round factory-farming and “manufactured” meat.9 Many people choose a vegetarian path for various reasons. However, this ancient animal theme is significant and well worth honoring, even if you prefer to carve a slab of tofu rather than turkey. Just as we’ve felt a heightened connection with Mother Earth while consuming the lush summer produce, Mabon can be a time to explore a stronger sense of our symbiotic connection with the animals of our planet. In many cultures, hunted creatures are thanked for giving themselves as food to the people; they’re honored with dances and prayers to help maintain good relationship so the animals will continue to make themselves available to the tribe in the future. Animals, in the flesh and in spirit, dance through so much of our mythology. Animal-helpers — ousel, stag, owl, eagle, salmon — are crucial in the tale of Mabon’s rescue.10 This is a fine time to acknowledge and honor our symbiotic connection with Earth’s other creatures.
RITUAL IDEAS & QUESTIONS
- How are we connecting now with Earth’s animal inhabitants?
- Are we in contact with our power animals?
- How do we honor and respect the animal-based foods we consume?
- As the nights lengthen, how do we perceive and use this darkness?
- Do you have a “dark side”? How do you view, work with and honor it?
- What are we gathering now to carry with us into the winter months?
“Homeric Hymn to the Mother of the Gods,” translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, quoted in The Great Mother, Erich Neumann, (Princeton: Bollingen Series, 1974), p. 271.
1. All celestial data from The Old Farmer’s Almanac
2. I base this on a very brief conversation with Celtic scholar Michael Ranauro at Dragonfest 1996. The linguistic info that immediately follows on the names “Modron” and “Mabon” also came from him.
3. Caitlin and John Matthews, Encyclopædia of Celtic Wisdom, (Elements: Rockport, MA, 1994), pp. 89-91.
4. Janet and Stewart Farrar, The Witches’ God, (Phoenix: Custer WA, 1989), pg. 199.
5. John and Caitlin Matthews, The Aquarian Guide to British & Irish Mythology, (Aquarian Press: Wellingborough, England, 1988), pp. 111, 112-3, 118-9. If we accept Modron/Demeter & Mabon/Kore parallels, have we uncovered evidence of a Celtic/Eleusinian Mystery Rite? Not quite, I think – more like common and persistent themes.
6. The quote is from Isocrates, in Barbara G. Walker, The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, (Harper & Row: New York, 1983), pp. 218-220.
7. Neumann, ibid., pp. 305-325, on the Eleusinian mysteries.
8. Walker, ibid, pp. 48-50.
9. Jeremy Rifkin, The End of Work (G. P. Putnam’s Sons: New York, 1995), Chapter 8: “No More Farmers,” pp. 109-127, and John Robbins, Diet for a New America, (Stillpoint: Walpole NH, 1987).
10. Matthews, Encyclopædia of Celtic Wisdom, pp. 89-91.
Art: Kore figure, c. 530-520 BC, found on the Acropolis
When a counselor (or therapist, healer, teacher, reader, clergy person of any kind – shamanic, pagan, Wiccan, Christian, Buddhist, whatever) tells you that entering a sexual relationship with them will
validate your divine womanhood,
or heal your wounded inner child
(or whatever the f*#% but it sounds great),
and especially if this relationship will be a secret known only between you two…
You are not being validated or healed.
You are being used.
Someone in a position of trust is taking advantage of your vulnerability.
* They are a predator. *
And you probably aren’t the first person to be entrapped, because they know all the key words
to make you feel wonderful and special and compliant.
This isn’t special. It’s predatory, and it’s also oath-breaking conduct that goes against every professional and ethical standard.
And P.S. This is NOT standard or acceptable behavior within the pagan community.
And when you break it off, or when they’re done using you, if they tell you that no one will believe you, that it’s just your word against theirs, they’re lying about that, too, and trying to keep you powerless. How healing is that?
Speaking to trusted friends and Elders helps reclaim your power. Break the isolation and find someone who can hear your truth.
Speaking up makes it harder for this predator to continue stalking your sisters in the community.
And the opposite: Our silence enables them, and helps them keep on using, abusing, preying on the vulnerable. It means we’re keeping the predator’s dirty secret.
Be a good ally to yourself and your sisters. Speak up.
* This note is written from my personal perspective, speaking to what I’ve seen, but this topic does not apply only to women: All variety of people are preyed upon sexually, energetically, psychologically, et. al. Rather than presuming that my voice can adequately to speak to your experience, I encourage you to speak your own truth.
Illustration: “The Fable of the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” by Gustave Doré (1832-1883).
The time to reap what we’ve sown arrives at Lammas, or Lughnasadh, on August 1st. The word lammas may come from the Anglo-Saxon hlafmaesse, meaning Loaf Mass: the rites of the Old Gods denied them at this traditional time, on August 1 (or the first Sunday in August) people took bread to the church to be blessed. The other name, Lughnasadh, combines Lugh, Goidelic Sun-deity of the Tuatha De Danann, with nassad, which can mean a fair or assembly or even “binding together.”1
Some legends say Lugh invented Lughnasadh to honor His foster-mother, the agricultural goddess Tailtiu, who once spent a year clearing a huge tract of land near County Meath; Lugh later built Her burial cairn there. Annual competitive games were held on the field in Her honor and it was the preferred time and place for handfastings, perhaps to encourage the growing crops to also be vigorous and productive, or perhaps to formalize any human Beltane plantings that had proved fertile. Robert Graves, however, cites Lammas as deriving from Lugh-mass, a ritual of mourning for Lugh Himself, who died this day; the funerary games honor Him. Irish Lughnasadh rites once opened with mournful processions, led by a young man carrying a hoop-wreath — symbol of the departing sun? Since Lugh may connect linguistically to lux, the Latin word for light,2 a funeral is apropos: The days are already nearly an hour shorter that they were at Litha, the Summer Solstice, back in June.
Whatever Lammas’ etymology, all the fire energy and pounding that began with Brigid at Her smithy exactly six months ago are now focused on the grains as they’re ground to flour and baked into breads. Loaves in human shape become John Barleycorn, honored for his sacrifice. Also present is the Corn Dollie. To create her, choose an excellent ear of corn, perhaps with four perfect kernels at the tip, the Hopi’s preference for their Corn Mother.3 Peel back the husks (which become her skirts), braid her golden corn-silk hair and ornament her as befits a Corn Queen. Next spring she can become seed corn (which is the practical reason to pick the best ear you can find to “mother” the next year’s crop), or she can dwell in your home until you make your new Lammas Corn Dollie next August and then be interred like Tailtiu and Lugh at that ritual (perhaps with the crumbly remnants of the evening’s John Barleycorn) to bless your land.
Besides our sacramental consumption of John Barleycorn and perhaps His liquid variants, this is an excellent time to glory in the sheer beauty of Mother Earth’s generosity. Try encircling your altar with dry grains and their fragrant spice and floral counterparts. In her book Jambalaya, Luisah Teish suggests combinations such as cornmeal and bee pollen, millet and lavender, or rice and cloves.4 I’ve used rich red lentils and rose buds on some occasions, blue corn and star anise on others. The possibilities are endless and the effect is both aesthetic and visceral, evoking abundance on a satisfying gut level while truly delighting the senses. At ritual’s end, coveners take portions of these materials home to their own altars or kitchens.
At both Litha and Lughnasadh, we also ask for protection for the crops still in the fields: some folks believe weather workings are appropriate now. These are also traditional times for blessing one’s animals.5,6 If the time-honored technique of herding your critters between two raging bonfires doesn’t seem like a realistic option, try bringing their collars or food dishes into circle.
And to show the Deities at both festivals how their bountiful generosity is appreciated, we eat. All grain-based and fresh vegetable dishes are especially symbolic – and delicious – now. Celebrate diversity in your harvesting: seek out grains and produce grown from “heirloom” seeds rather than factory-farmed, mass-produced, genetically-engineered hybrids. Besides supporting ecologically crucial crop diversity, it’s a way of truly tasting what our ancestors planted, prayed for and ate in the distant past.7 Dress in harvest golds and greens, pour libations with a free hand and when you’re done, ground the energy graphically by recycling and composting anything that wasn’t consumed.
Lugh and John and all Your Grain Brothers, we mourn Your passing but honor this sacrifice on our behalf. Sunna, look kindly on our endeavors and let our harvests – both literal and metaphoric – be joyfully bountiful!
RITUAL IDEAS & QUESTIONS
– Make Corn-dollies
– Bake a grain-man of bread
– What are you currently harvesting in your life?
– What seeds are you carrying forward?
1. Steve Blamires, Glamoury: Magic of the Celtic Green World, (St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1995), p.271-8.
2. Robert Graves, The White Goddess, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974), p. 301.
3. Zsuzsanna E. Budapest, The Grandmother of Time, (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989), p.160.
4. Luisah Teish, Jambalaya, (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), p. 231.
5. Diane Stein, Casting the Circle, (Freedom: Crossing Press, 1990), p. 126.
6. Campanelli, Ancient Ways, p. 91.
7. National Research Council, Agricultural Crop Issues and Policies, (Washington: National Academy Press, 1993)
Previously published in The Hole in the Stone.
A: On questions of prophetic information, my first question is usually “How do you feel about what the person told you? Does that information ring true for you?” Especially when we’re going through confusing times, it’s natural to seek clear direction. But check in with your own inner barometer:
- Does this feel true, right, cosmically familiar, appropriate, appealing?
- Or does it feel – at least for now, at this point in your life – baffling, unappealing, maybe weird or even scary?
We are never obliged to rearrange our lives based on the information delivered by psychics, readers or shamans – really! This is true no matter how much you paid for the reading/session. If what you were told doesn’t ring true or feel right for you, put it aside. This doesn’t mean going to other readers, telling them what you were told and asking for verification – it just means:
Put it aside. If this path is really yours, it will reappear.
If such a message does feel right, a good starting point is a basic workshop in shamanic practices and journeying. Once you’re journeying regularly and developing a strong alliance with a Power Animal or some other Spirit-Plane Guide, that being will let you know if yours is the path of the healer. Since you’ll do any healing work together, building that alliance of mutual trust is the beginning. Without that strong alliance with your Spirit Guides, a shamanic healer’s path isn’t even possible.
If you’re meant to follow a healer’s path, get to know your own Guides: They’ll will make sure you know about it, even rather insistently or over your own objections.
Really, they’ll make sure you know.
This comes from the Frequently Asked Questions page on my website. I teach beginning and advanced shamanic workshops, as do plenty of other experienced and reputable people. You can find many of them here.
For it giveth unto all lovers courage,
that lusty month of May.1
If Ostara is viewed as the return of fertility, Beltaine can be viewed as the time to do something about it. This is the seasonal celebration of sexual union. It’s the time of the Maypole dance, when the pole (male) is enwrapped in fabric streamers (female).2 It’s when the previous year’s fires are allowed to burn out and a new blaze is kindled and shared—taine (or teine) is Gaelic for fire.3 Fertility and abundance were encouraged by human couplings, out on the land, under the stars. This male/female symbolism can be utilized despite one’s sexual orientation, since any act of creativity is bound to call on both left and right brain, both logic and intuition, within ourselves, to become fully realized.
Pale but charming suburban remnants of Beltaine were celebrated during my 1950s childhood as May Day. “May baskets” were crafted from colored paper and lacy paper doilies, stapled or glued into fanciful shapes with a hanging-loop of narrow paper at the top. Filled with the season’s first flowers, the baskets were anonymously hung on neighborhood doorknobs— we’d ring the bell and run off feeling elfish.
A friend remembers dancing the Maypole as a Catholic school kindergartner. Those students annually crowned their statues of the Virgin Mary with wreaths of tiny rosebuds. Altars heaped with elaborate offerings were dedicated to Mary as “Queen of the Heavens, Queen of the May,” a brief paganish respite at a strict 1940s Catholic parochial school.
“Witch hunts” of the political variety helped squelch May Day customs in the United States. Designated International Workers’ Day, a Socialist holiday, in 1889,4 by the 1950s May 1st had become the occasion of massive military parades in Communist Russia, complete with missiles and tanks rolling through the streets of Moscow. Faced with lingering paranoia about Joe McCarthy and his ilk, many Americans forsook their old floral customs rather than risk being labeled “soft on communism” or worse.
The graphic symbolism and high energy of a Maypole is wonderful and explained in great detail elsewhere,5 but basically you need a tall, strong pole, well-planted in the ground. An even number of people is necessary, divided into two equal even-numbered groups moving around in opposite directions. Strips of cloth several inches wide show up better than narrow ribbons; you’ll need one long strip per dancer. There are ways to adapt the Maypole to limited space and solitary/small group workings. Find a good phallic stick in advance; during your Beltaine rites wrap it with streamers and your intentions for the coming season. Old traditional colors were red and white (for female and male sexuality), but any significant hues can be used. In a group, people might wrap personal sticks, or one stick can be passed as people wind and bind and speak intentions until the “maypolette” is completely swaddled and the streamers are used up.
Several sources speak of saving the first rain of May to bathe in6 or rolling in May-day morning dew.7 Consider soaking your streamers in the evening dew (Father Sky joining Mother Earth) before wrapping your pole, or placing your Maypolette outside to absorb this potent moisture on May-morning.
Early Beltaine fires were created with a fire-drill (a stick spun briskly into a hole in another piece of wood—more sexual imagery?)8 and leaping the flames may have been a means of symbolically firing up the human nether regions. Nine different woods were traditionally used in the fire, each with its own significance (9 = 3 x 3, the Triple Goddess, triple-strength).9 These fires—regenerative heat incarnate—were a vital part of earlier rites and well worth retaining. For the city-dwellers among us, this may take the form of a cauldron fire (that old stand-by, rubbing alcohol and epsom salts), but we can still jump over the flames and shout our intentions—what aspects of our lives we discard, what we claim.
Through all Beltaine observances runs a pleasing sensual current that celebrates the body in flesh and blood and beauty. The joy and color of the Maypole, the exhilaration of fire-leaping, the acknowledged enjoyment of our own sexuality—all these echo the current exuberance in nature as flowers (the sex organs of plants) appear and the earth blooms again. Invite Flora’s bounty to your rites—cut, blooming in pots, seedlings, in salads or in your hair. Remember the chicken-and-roses-recipe scene in the film “Like Water for Chocolate”? Let our sensual floral relatives help heat up your festivities!
- Create a Maypole, or an individual “Maypolette” wrapped intentions into a small stick with ribbons or fabrics strips
- Take turns stroking each other’s feet and hands with flowers – very sensual!
- Create and jump over a fire
- Consenting adults, why not allow for some amorous time outside amid the returning greenery and under the night sky?
- Catch some May-eve rain, or roll in May-day morning dew
- Flowers are sexy and sensual – enjoy them
1. Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) Later adapted into lyrics for the musical Camelot
2. Though we tend to think of ribbon for this, strips of cut fabric—streamers—work wonderfully.
3. Steve Blamires, Glamoury, (St. Paul MN: Llewellyn Publishing, 1995), p. 250
4. The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia
5. Pauline Campanelli, Ancient Ways (St. Paul MN: Llewellyn, 1991), pp. 52-77
6. Luisah Teish, Carnival of the Spirit, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), pp. 103-11
7. Blamires, ibid., pp. 254-5
8. Blamires, ibid., p. 253.
9. Campanelli, ibid., p 72.
“Spring is come home with her world-wandering feet,
And all things are made young with young desires.”
Spring celebrates the Goddess as Maiden – Kore returns from the Underworld and brings the fructifying principle of nature back with Her. Hibernating animals reawaken, migratory creatures return; plants, busy with root-growth all winter, begin pushing up and out. The sunlight, growing since Yule morning, now graces and warms our days. By Ostara – our Spring Equinox holiday takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon Goddess of Spring – we have nearly three more hours of sunlight each day than at the solstice. Even if the weather’s still wintry, the earliest plants are struggling to rise and the nights are significantly shorter.
So are the shadows. As the sun moves from a southern to a northern declination, we lose the low light angle and long daytime shadows of deep winter. The light gains ascendancy and winter literally recedes. The Vernal Equinox occurs on the first day on which the sun rises north of the equator, falling within a day either way of March 20. This year it’s March 20, today. The days and nights of equal length actually occur a few days earlier, this year on March 16 (sunrise to sunset, this day was still a few minutes less than twelve hours long) and March 17 (the daylight hours exceeded twelve hours by several minutes).
“Vernal” comes from the Latin verb vernare, meaning “To renew oneself in Spring, to be young.” In a seasonal ordering of the Beth-Luis-Nion tree alphabet, Robert Graves connects the Latin vernare to the letter Fearn, between letters Onn and Saille. In his poetic hand, the letters Onn-Fearn-Saille evolve into Anna Fearina Salmaona, “Queen of the Spring, Mother of the Willow,” a lovely image now, when the small willow aptly called red-twig gradually begins budding. If your concept of “willow” tends only toward tall and weeping, watch for this widespread wild version glowing red along Colorado creek beds. A decorated willow-branch archway figures in an Argentinean springtime ritual for mothers and godmothers.
The color red rules in Ostara traditions. Numerous sources speak of eggs being dyed red now to symbolize rebirth, and red is surely a more compelling hue than the tender pastels that dominate modern Easter decor. Zsuzsanna Budapest connects red eggs to the Festival of Astarte (March 17), an ancient Near-Eastern rite joining female/male energies (a nice analogy for the night-day balance). Pauline Campanelli associates scarlet eggs to the Druids, colored red with furze (Onn) blossoms to honor the Sun. Red dye can also be obtained from bark of the alder, named as a tree of resurrection in The Odyssey.
Eggs and the color red were both common burial inclusions. Eggs have been found in or on ancient graves in Hungary, Egypt, Russia, Greece and Britain; red ochre has been found in megalithic graves in Pembrokeshire’s Prescelly Mountains, at the Çatal Hüyük site in Turkey and on the Salisbury Plain, among many others locations. In the funerary context, red is usually interpreted as a charm for either rebirth through reincarnation or new birth into a life-after-death. At birth, we arrive slicked with our mothers’ blood; there is a pleasing symmetry in departing back into the Earth’s womb wearing the same color. And of course Spring, symbolically associated with the East (and the dawn) is as logical a time for rebirth rites as the autumn (sunsets and the West) is for death-rites.
Why the big emphasis on eggs? 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. Foods imported from distant regions and factory farms with artificial light sources now put eggs in the grocery stores year around. An egg is first “born” when its laid, and then again when it hatches. And 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 as well (and they present an alternative to all the seasonal cuteness, though, alas, I’ve yet to see a chocolate snake). Barbara Walker mentions a 13th Century French custom in which a snake was carried up to the baptismal font during Easter week. Hibernating creatures, snakes too begin reawakening in Spring.
The rabbit or hare, the other main symbol at this time, is cited for its fertility. This is more than mythological: The gestation period for a doe rabbit is a mere thirty-one days. By contrast, cats and dogs carry their young twice as long; even squirrels average forty-four days. Rabbits can begin breeding at six months. Mad as a March hare? That “madness” is estrus, sexual frenzy. Ostara Herself was believed able to take the form of a hare, and these animals, especially white ones, were sacred to Her. In British myth, the hare also symbolizes transformation, another reason for the creature’s significance now.
Ostara’s resurrection theme can’t be over emphasized. This is the time for renewal, rebirth, resurrection after winter’s dormancy. In my group, raw, preferably fertile eggs are decorated in circle and taken home to our personal altars (after we all try to stand them on end, of course, a feat allegedly possible only at the equinoxes). If you plan to garden, Ostara is a logical time to bless those seeds; if you do any pruning, save the wood for the Beltane fires. In celebrations, consider meditations and journeys on such questions as “what is awakening now in my life?”
RITUAL IDEAS and QUESTIONS
— Decorate and balance eggs
— Bless the seeds (or starter-plants) for your garden
— “What is (re)awakening now in my life?”
— “What is coming into balance? What feels unbalanced?”
© 2014 Renna Shesso –
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Alternative spellings are Eostre, Ostre, Eostara, possibly related to Eos and Astarte, and definitely the source of the word “Easter.” Derived from estrus, from the Latin oestrus, or frenzy.
The quote comes from “From the Night of Forebeing, An Ode After Easter” by Francis Thompson (1859-1907)
Zsuzsanna E. Budapest, The Grandmother of Time
Pauline Campanelli, Ancient Ways – Campanelli has extensive information on coloring eggs with natural dyes.
Robert Graves, The White Goddess
Buffie Johnson, The Lady of the Beasts
John and Caitlin Matthews, The Aquarian Guide to British and Irish Mythology
Luisah Teish, Carnival of the Spirit
Barbara G. Walker, The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets
Following the Winter Solstice, the days are noticeably longer by the time the next holiday arrives, whether we call it Imbolc, Brigid’s Day or Candlemas. And what date is it anyway, the 1st or 2nd of February?
Fact is, what we celebrate as the mid-point between Yule and Ostara was originally several different holy-days, with separate origins and dates, but with a few broad thematic points in common.
Brigid is the Irish name of the great Triple Goddess of the Celtic empire. She was hailed as Brigantia in England, Bride in Scotland (where Her symbol is the white swan), and Brigandu in Celtic France.
Fire is Her element, and the arts of poetry, medicine and smith-craft fall under Her particular provenance. She’s identified with Mother Earth Herself, childbirth and the fertility of the soil, and is credited with the invention of both whistling and mournful keening. She’s credited with teaching the foxes to dance. In Ireland, Her principle shrine was at Kildare, where Her priestesses kept an eternal flame well-stoked.
In the sixth century, February 1st became Saint Brigid’s Day on the Catholic calendar when Irish worship of the goddess and Imbolc, Her cross-quarters holiday, proved impossible to eradicate. A fictitious history was concocted to transform a Goddess into a saintly human, and her Kildare shrine evolved into a nunnery. Even as a saint, Brigid’s miracles concern fertility and She remains the patroness of poets, blacksmiths, midwives, healers and the hearth.
Recognizing Her ancient power, the Kildare nuns sang, “Brigid, excellent woman, sudden flame, may the bright fiery sun take us to the lasting kingdom.”
Candlemas, on February 2nd, is a separate holiday overlaid with a variety of church traditions as the Festival of the Purification of the Virgin. According to Mosaic Law, women were soiled by the act of childbearing and could “touch no hallowed thing, nor come into sanctuary” for a proscribed time after giving birth. February 2nd, falling forty days after Christmas, marked the official end of Mary’s imposed isolation after the birth of Jesus. Incidentally, giving birth to a daughter was considered even dirtier work, with eighty days of “purification” required.
Whether this custom had its roots in male fears of female procreativity or was originally a welcome opportunity for the new mother and baby to rest and bond, the name Candlemas came from the the fact that the year’s supply of church candles were blessed at the February 2nd mass, which gets us back — albeit circuitously — to fire.
The first half of February, starting on the 2nd, was originally dedicated to Juno Februata, worshipped in pagan Rome as the goddess who inspired the combustible fire, the fever — febris — of love. To honor Her, Romans carried burning candles with them throughout the city. This irritated early Christian authorities, who responded by co-opting the fire connotations of February 2nd as Candlemas.
The love-fest portion of the energy was pushed a couple weeks back to St. Valentine’s Day in an attempt to “abolish the heathen’s lewd superstitious custom of boys drawing [lots for] the names of girls, in honor of their goddess Februata Juno…”
This mingled history gives us Brigid’s fire and fertile soil, Juno Februata’s love-fever, and plenty of potent images of heated creative skills: Poetry, smithing, healing, loving and birthing, all fanned by the first warm-winded hints of winter’s demise. In ritual, strike metal (a rhythmic beat on a Tibetan singing bowl, perhaps) and evoke Brigid’s smithy: How will Brigid’s smith-craft shape and temper our lives in the coming months?
RITUAL IDEAS and QUESTIONS
- “What projects fire me up right now?”
- “What old stuff can I cast away into the flames?”
- “What do I love? How do I feed that fire?”
To the sound of ringing metal, journey and ask Brigid to shape your life, smoothing out the rough spots, bringing in strength and beauty
* From the Howard Hawks film version of “To Have and Have Not,” 1944.
Robert Graves, The White Goddess; Janet and Stewart Farrar, The Witches’ Goddess; Patricia Monaghan, The Book of Goddesses and Heroines; Barbara Walker, The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets; and (no kidding) Father Butler, Lives of the Saints. Originally printed in The Hole in the Stone magazine.