Beltane – Sacred Sex

I’m continuing to republish a series of articles. This one was originally written in 2012.

In addition to the four Elements, on the cross-quarter days of the Wheel of the Year this year I’m going to explore four major themes or concepts that I think are deeply important in Wicca. Please note that Wicca is not the only kind of Paganism that there is and that even within Wicca interpretations vary widely, so this is not authoritative about anyone else’s practices or beliefs. It’s offered as food for thought.

Wicca is not a religion based on a text. Even the forms of worship vary tremendously, with nothing resembling a formal liturgy that is widely accepted or agreed upon. Most Wiccans, though, are familiar with a few important pieces of writing and many use them in ritual at times or consider them important reflections of the religion. The best-loved of these is Doreen Valiente’s The Charge of the Goddess.

The Charge exists in many forms and has been revised over the years by different practitioners. Here is a version by Starhawk, a famous feminist Pagan author. I’ll note that some people use the whole thing, but I personally only use the section from “Hear now the words of the Star Goddess…” to the end. In British Traditional Wicca, the Charge is read at each ritual, and others may use the Charge similarly, especially near Beltane. The reason is simple. One of the most oft-quoted lines of the Charge says:

Let My worship be in the heart that rejoices, for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals.

In Wicca, sex is sacred. This has a lot of metaphysical connotations: the union of Goddess and God is seen as the source of everything, and stories of that union take many forms. But it’s also about the purely human. Beltane is traditionally a fertility festival, even more so than Ostara, perhaps; as we begin to enjoy the longer days and warmer temperatures of spring and summer, it’s natural to be interested in making whoopee. And as we noted at Ostara, our nonhuman neighbors also tend to engage in acts of love and pleasure with great enthusiasm around this time of year.

But for me, it’s important to understand that this valorization of sex is about a lot more than it can seem. Yes, “all acts of love and pleasure” certainly refers to intercourse, and it also refers to a lot more than that; any loving act of pleasure is included, regardless of the genders of people involved. It doesn’t say “acts of love and pleasure that lead to conception” or even might lead to conception. To me, it’s a bit misleading to say that this is about fertility – unless one expands the concept of fertility to mean a lot more than simply making babies.

One of the ways I like to express this is to say that it’s not as much about having sex as it is about making love. My partner and I make love with each other in all kinds of ways that happen fully clothed and outside the bedroom: he makes dinner, I do the laundry, he gives me a foot rub, and we go to sleep having expressed our love for each other with great depth and passion, just not with “sex” per se. Don’t get me wrong – sex is one of my favorite ways of making love – it’s just not the only one, or the most important one for all situations.

Think also about the meanings of the word “intercourse.” Yes, it is usually used only to refer to sex these days. But historically, its meanings have included what today we might call “dialogue” or “exchange,” where people engage with each other in any number of non-physical ways. To me, these too can be acts of love and pleasure. When two friends have an engaging conversation that leads to the creation of a work of art, I can see that as a kind of non-sexual “intercourse” which has also brought forth something new in the world. And if a work of art has a life of its own, as we often express it metaphorically, then this too is a kind of fertility, of bringing new life into the world.

These expanded ideas of intercourse and fertility make my understanding of Wicca one where sex is sacred not because of sex acts themselves, but because it is one of the most wonderful, vital examples of a whole class of activity – all acts of love and pleasure. Wicca is about connections: connections within nature, connections to deity, and connections between individuals. All acts of love and pleasure that create and celebrate connections between people, especially ones that are fruitful or productive in those people’s lives, are sacred.

This weekend, participated in a ritual that included dancing the Maypole. The Maypole has a long history as a fertility symbol. But what struck me about it, as I steadied the pole and my friends whirled around me, was not the pole itself, but the network we wove as we did so. This wasn’t just about union between two people; it was also about community, coming together to celebrate how our interconnections are important to the fabric of our lives, and how those interactions bear fruit in so very many forms.

And those are what I celebrate this Beltane. Yes, I include plenty of bawdy humor and making love both in and out of the bedroom with my partner, but I also celebrate the ways that I connect with others: through song and story, image and word, through all the myriad interconnections that make my world the vibrant, vital place that it is. One of those is the Slacktiverse, and so I celebrate each and every one of you, too, this season. With that, I wish you many acts of love and pleasure, of many different kinds. Bright Beltane to you all!

Ritual for celebrating triple Goddess using Three of Cups

The suit of Cups is all about Water, so it has to do with emotions and relationships. The Three of Cups is a card of relating to others, and it has special resonance for goddess worshippers who know that several goddesses take on a three-part form, or can be understood as part of a triad with other goddesses. The ritual below is written arounnd the general theme of Maiden, Mother, Crone, but you can substitute instead any three-part goddess you work with more closely.

The image on the Motherpeace card is a celebration by a river. (See the Motherpeace image by selecting 3 of Cups from the drop-down menu.) I also particularly like the image in the Robin Wood Tarot where three women are dancing holding chalices marked with the moon phase symbols.

In this ritual we’re going to offer libations to the goddess in her three parts. Using this ancient method of celebrating and honoring goddess will strengthen our relationship to her and also represents the way we are participating in the continuing river of her presence poured out for us.

Materials:
Chalice or your favorite drinking vessel
A bowl to pour your libations into, unless you can do ritual outdoors and pour directly on the earth
Liquid that you like to drink – it could be water, wine, milk, tea, or anything that you would share with Goddess

Prepare your altar with any Goddess images or decorations you like, especially symbols of the triple moon, or a trio of white, red, and black candles. Put your Tarot card on your altar along with your chalice and bowl to receive your libations.

Ritual

Ground and center yourself.

Cup your hands in front of you and see the light and energy of the full moon filling them. Cast your circle by walking around the perimeter and pouring this light out to mark the edges of your circle.

Call the Quarters using these words or your own:

Air, powers of the East, inspire me as I share my thoughts and words with Goddess tonight. Hail and welcome!

Fire, powers of the South, light my way and warm my heart in celebration with Goddess tonight. Hail and welcome!

Water, powers of the West, fill my cup so that I may pour it out in libation to Goddess tonight. Hail and welcome!

Earth, powers of the North, receive what I pour out in libation for Goddess tonight. Hail and welcome!

Invoke Goddess using these words or your own:

Clever maiden, merciful crone, loving mother of us all, Goddess, I invoke you in your triple form.
I honor you, I praise you, I love you.
Hear me, guide me, and bless me this night and always.

Chant “We all come from the Goddess and to her we shall return / like a drop of rain rolling to the ocean.” You can use the words alone, or learn the tune here:

As you chant, take your chalice into your hands and direct your love and devotion to the Goddess into your chalice. When you are done, dedicate the cup to her by drawing the triple moon symbol )O( in the air over the cup.

Pour three libations. During each one, name the aspect of the Goddess to which you are offering, and  thank her for her blessings and/or ask her for help with her special gifts. For example, you might say:

Maiden, youthful, beautiful, and free, I offer this drink to you. Help me celebrate my independence with joy.

Mother, loving, gracious, and kind, I offer this drink to you. Help me give birth to my hopes and dreams.

Crone, wise one, merciful, and strong, I offer this drink to you. Help me honor my own wisdom with grace.

When you are done with your libations, drink the rest of the cup to take Goddess’ blessings into you.

Thank and dismiss the Quarters.

Open the circle.

Who is your dark moon goddess?

I work with two primary goddesses, Brigid and Morrigan. In my work, they form a complementary pairing. Brigid usually takes the creative and healing roles, while the Morrigan is the goddess I turn to when I need to work through more difficult situations, such as engaging my shadows. As we turn towards this dark moon after Imbolc, I am reminded of the ways both of them are necessary and important parts of my work.

Do you tend to turn to different powers or deities in different situations? Do you have a dark moon goddess?

Cuccinelli v All Acts of Love And Pleasure

My religion encourages oral sex.

Ken Cuccinelli, candidate for governor, wants to outlaw it.

Why am I not the new face of the brave fight for religious liberty?

Cuccinelli for Governor: Because oral sex sucks!
Image courtesy of the blogger’s partner (in crime, apparently). If you copy, please link back.

Seriously, though: Ken Cuccinelli, the current attorney general of Virginia and Republican candidate for governor has just launched a new website as part of his campaign that argues in favor of a law which criminalizes oral and anal sex between consenting adults in private.

This law is currently unconstitutional as a result of a Supreme Court ruling. But Cuccinelli is arguing that it’s a vital part of protecting children from sex offenders, which makes no sense. Moreover, it’s offensive to me as a woman, a Wiccan, and a feminist.

The actual case where the law was declared unconstitutional as a result of SCOTUS precedent involved at least one seventeen year old. I agree that there’s a metric crapton of potential problems with someone in hir teens having sex with someone in hir 40s or 50s. But if Cuccinelli has a problem with 17 year olds having sex, he could try to raise the age of consent, or prove that the situation was not consensual. That’s not what he’s doing. He’s specifically argued in favor of keeping the parts of the law (that are unconstitutional) that ban private consensual non-commercial adult (above the age of consent) behavior.

Cuccinelli basically says that the law won’t be used to prosecute adults doing what they want. But there’s no reason to believe him. That’s exactly what the law says, and in the law, you live and die (or convict and set free) based on what the law actually, very specifically, says. What kind of prosecutor argues that on the one hand, he desperately must have a law that criminalizes a wide range of behavior, but then promises that on the other hand he won’t prosecute what the law says, even when that’s what he’s actually doing? Not to mention, what kind of fiscal conservative says that it’s vitally important to spend precious government time and money to defend laws that have already been declared unconstitutional?

The homophobic kind, that’s who.

From Think Progress:

In fact, Cuccinelli is a major reason that the provisions of this particular law governing non-consensual sex were left vulnerable to court challenge. In 2004, a bipartisan group in the Virginia General Assembly backed a bill that would have brought the law in line with the Supreme Court’s ruling. They proposed to eliminate the Crimes Against Nature law’s provisions dealing with consenting adults in private and leaving in place provisions relating to prostitution, public sex, and those other than consenting adults. Cuccinelli opposed the bill in committee and helped kill it on the Senate floor.

In 2009, he told a newspaper why he supported restrictions on the sexual behavior of consenting adults: “My view is that homosexual acts, not homosexuality, but homosexual acts are wrong. They’re intrinsically wrong. And I think in a natural law based country it’s appropriate to have policies that reflect that. … They don’t comport with natural law.” As a result of Cuccinelli’s homophobia, the law’s text remains unchanged a decade after the Supreme Court’s ruling.

While Cuccinelli tries to spin his efforts as “Virginia’s appeal to preserve a child-protection statute,” this amounts to little more than his attempt to restore the state’s unconstitutional ban on oral sex.

This matters because it shows that Cuccinelli is willing to fight a dead letter over a culture war issue. It matters because he’s willing to mislead people with moral panic over child endangerment to do it. It matters because this anti-sex agenda is what Cuccinelli really thinks is worth working on, and it’s what he thinks will make him win. You’d better believe it’s what he’ll act on if he does win.

His culture-warrior stance runs a lot deeper than just oral sex. He’s been using his current office to move heaven and earth to restrict reproductive health rights in Virginia. In addition, his running running mate is one EW Jackson, a Christian pastor, whose aggressively anti-non-Christian attitudes and comments have been covered quite seriously at the Wild Hunt and with an appropriately large dash of sarcasm at Wonkette.

And quite frankly, my understanding of Wicca really does validate all kinds of consensual sex. It’s right there in the Charge of the Goddess:

All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.

The idea of “acts of love and pleasure” is a very potent way of expressing my feminist ethic of consent to sex. I’m not going to consent to something that’s not pleasurable to me. If I can’t consent – if I can’t engage in love and pleasure – then whatever’s happening isn’t sex; it’s sexual assault, abuse, battery, or rape.

Cuccinelli is actually making a version of the Two Boxes argument about what kinds of sex are permissible and not permissible. Nearly all “slippery slope” arguments about marriage equality are versions of this. (Cuccinelli gets double Conservative SexHater Points for pretending that outlawing consensual adult oral sex is a way of “protecting our children.” Score!)

The Two Boxes argument says that the Christian god has designated certain kinds of sex as “good” and other kinds as “bad,” and that there is no other possible way to differentiate between allowable and not-allowable actions in our secular civil law. Therefore, if you allow one “bad” thing, you’re allowing all “bad” things. Slippery slope: people will gay-marry their dogs! The Two Boxes argument is extremely simplistic. By contrast, my ethics – both my secular civil reasoning and my religious understanding – tell me that we can draw a different boundary based on enthusiastic consent.

In the rest of this post, I am going to talk about the connections between my civil feminist understanding and my Wiccan understanding. There’s already been a lot of great feminist explication of this ethic of consent. I think that we should determine our secular, civil law on the basis of secular, civil reasoning. I am not trying to substitute my Wiccan standards for Cuccinelli’s Christian standards. I am trying to explain why my Wiccan standards coincide with my secular feminist standards. With that in mind, Cuccinelli’s efforts really are offensive not just on a human rights and feminist level but to me as a person with a different religion with different standards.

I think that the idea “acts of love and pleasure” contains the seeds of the concept of affirmative, enthusiastic consent. This concept differentiates between acceptable and unacceptable sex on the basis that some people can’t engage in love and pleasure. That might be because they’re not people: lampposts, dogs, box turtles; it might be because they’re incapable of consent: under the age of consent, handicapped, intoxicated, etc. Either way, the standard concepts of “love” and “pleasure” don’t apply.

Ultimately, my understanding relies on the idea that sex is a cooperative activity that is done by partners together. Sex is not a thing that men do to women as objects. Sex is not a thing that women have that men try to get or take. Sex isn’t just about men and women. It’s about people, and their consent, to acts of love and pleasure.

Those ideas, deep down, are what scares Cuccinelli, and his fellow culture warriors, spitless, pun intended:

People – consent – love – and pleasure

If you care about those things, whether for civil or religious reasons, or especially both, then you ought to find Cuccinelli’s latest actions reprehensible.

PS: Regarding the first statement: There. Now you can start blaming me, right after the makers of Witch-sploitation movies, for causing people to claim that they’re Wiccan when they don’t have the first clue what Wicca really is.

ETA: Think Progress also gives an example of a sheriff’s department in Louisiana enforcing a similar “anti-sodomy” statute which is equally unconstitutional and hence unenforceable. This proves that “unenforceable” does not prevent officers from arresting and detaining people. I don’t know the details of how arrest records work, but they may be different from court records. Certainly the news often reports that people were arrested on offenses in the past, and job applications may ask if the applicant has been arrested, not just about convictions. I hope I don’t have to spell out all the implications.

At Forging Futures: Choice and the Goddess

Over at Forging Futures, I’ve written about why I think honoring the feminine divine means that we must trust women to make their own choices about their bodies – especially the choice to have an abortion.

Given the juxtaposition of this piece with the previous one, I want to point out a few things about my political speech, since I am often political.

First of all, what I’m doing is very different from the kind of pulpit politicking that is being pushed by the Religious Right which I so strongly disdain. Yes, I’m ordained as a priestess by a 501(c)3 tax-exempt religious organization. But none of my online speech is as a leader for that organization, nor is it funded with the support of those tax-exempt dollars. These are my personal views and my personal speech. I defend even the most conservative Christian pastor’s identical right to his views and his speech, when he’s not using his tax-exempt organization to push them.

Second, for all that I often discuss how my religion guides my life, my ideas, and my choices – including my political choices – I am also determinedly in support of secular government. Whatever ways of understanding I use to arrive at my conclusions, when I advocate a policy approach that will affect other people, I always, always, always have a purely secular justification for it.

Respecting women’s bodily autonomy and giving them the right to make their own health care decisions should be an obvious conclusion when considering the situation from a secular point of view, and it’s on that basis that I want to see policies enacted. The fact that I also have strong religious reasons for supporting this position is relevant to me, and is something that I discuss as part of exploring how to live out my values in the world, but it is not the defense I offer for putting something into law.

These are the kinds of distinctions that make the difference between religious people who are engaged in politics and would-be theocrats. Respecting them is part of keeping our pluralist democracy functioning.

Persephone by Ariel Springs

This wonderful drawing of Persephone going to the Underworld was done by my friend Ariel Springs. I love the fact that Ariel challenged the traditional narrative by showing Persephone as happy. If you look very closely, you’ll also see that the plants on the left are blooming, but the ones on the right are wilting and dying, showing how the path leads down to the land of the dead. I’m impressed with how many ideas she was able to include in a relatively simple drawing. Thanks, Ariel, for letting me share this.

Review: Gadon, The Once and Future Goddess

Gadon, Elinor. The Once and Future Goddess: A symbol for our time. HarperCollins, 1989. Paperback, 405 pages.

The effort to recognize and restore the place of female power, authority, and divinity, especially in areas of study like archaeology, prehistory, and history, is deeply important to women’s empowerment and our reimagining of the possibilities of Western culture. But there is good reason to think that in the first blush of excitement over the possibilities, the pendulum swung too far in the other direction. Gadon, like many others, fell prey to the myth of matriarchal prehistory which Cynthia Eller has so capably exposed as not just inaccurate but an unstable foundation for women’s spirituality.

Let me say up front that I largely agree with Gadon’s descriptions of the dehumanization of women through modernity and patriarchal societies as documented in the historical record. But Gadon is determined to read that narrative back in an unbroken arc to prehistory, where the silent evidence of artifacts rather than texts is more accommodating of Gadon’s reinterpretations. By the end of the work it becomes obvious that Gadon really wanted to write about contemporary female artists and their reenvisioning and reclaiming of women’s bodies and women’s meaning. Those chapters may be valuable, but the majority of the book is devoted to pseudo-historical imaginings that have great potential to do harm.

Gadon’s historical errors and problems are pervasive. She cites Maria Gimbutas as an inspiration and takes Gimbutas’ often-discredited interpretations as authoritative. Gadon then presents these to the reader as if they were the predominant archaeological position. Similarly, Gadon bases an entire chapter on the theories of an archaeologist since disgraced for potentially smuggling antiquities and whose evidence for “the Great Goddess” and a matriarchal society was wholly discredited. Gadon’s reliance on these sources might have been barely excusable for a non-scholar twenty years ago, when she was writing, but our understandings of history and archaeology have developed significantly since then. Today’s readers need to be aware of these issues and look elsewhere for their information.

She also plays a neat shell game with visual evidence, asserting that similarly-described patterns in three different places have distinct meanings related to the goddesses she wants to identify: on page 43, diamonds and chevrons represent water, on page 49, diamonds are a sign of the vegetation goddess, and on page 53, bands of dots and zigzags are snakeskin designs. Similarly, bull horns are both symbols of masculinity and a representation of the lunar crescent – so is the moon a male symbol, too? In later chapters, Gadon slides from one goddess-figure into another, the snake and bird goddess(es) being sometimes separate and sometimes the same, but regardless, Gadon presents all evidence as supporting the pan-Goddess hypothesis.

This kind of sloppy scholarship does nothing more than convince me that interpreting prehistoric artifacts is an extremely difficult field in which it is easy to pick the possible interpretation that supports preexisting assumptions. She also conveniently ignores other possible interpretations. For example, rather than goddess figures, archaeologists might be unearthing Neolithic erotica, which does not necessarily mean that women were valued or powerful. I guarantee that an archaeologist digging up my current culture would find lots of representations of women, but that doesn’t mean women are running an idyllic goddess-worshipping matriarchy.

For someone who wants to imagine herself back in time, Gadon’s disconnection from any physical realities of the period is sometimes annoying and sometimes laughable. Her penchant for inappropriately syncretizing everything leads her to try to unify the rhythms of agricultural food production and those of hunter-gatherer production – in every bioregion and climate! – to support the idea of universal spring sacrifices. She has also apparently never seen winter wheat. (72) This is one more symptom of how she slides back and forth between the symbolic and the actual much too easily.

Gadon’s inaccuracies are not merely symbolic, though: she asserts that people’s “material life improved” as they moved into agricultural communities, when in fact, nearly all the extant evidence shows the exact opposite. (45) Every time a large enough population of humans concentrated, “herd” or “crowd” diseases cropped up, and in fact, even when they survived childhood, farmers were less well nourished and in poorer health overall than their predecessors.

Even in discussing the presence and role of the Goddess in the very society from which she comes, Gadon is sloppy with her evidence, giving incorrect Biblical citations for her quotes, ignoring the Old Testament, and failing to differentiate between popular Catholicism and the Church’s actual teachings. She also wanders through the ideas in her typical scatterbrained way, tossing off odd comments like the idea that the moon brought menstruation into Mary’s iconography by association. (204) Huh?

Most problematic for me was  Gadon’s unremitting gender essentialism. The tactic of valorizing things previously derided for being “female” is an important part of changing patriarchy, but unquestioningly accepting the patriarchal framing of what women are is a major strategic error. Gadon argues that women’s wombs are the source of their power. (289) Reducing women to their reproductive systems is dehumanizing and wrong no matter who does it.

The idea that some of the Goddess images are also phallic, and thus incorporate men, is as backhanded a way of justifying the Goddess as a universal representation of deity as the idea that the Christian god is neither male nor female. The “coincidental” connection to Christianity suggested on page 44 is frankly insulting to Christians in tone and verges on spiritual-cultural imperialism. Replacing the “default male” assumption with a “default female” assumption may help break down patriarchy, but it still defines some people as normal and some as Other.

Ultimately, Gadon’s fascination with visual representations means I should not be surprised by her finally stating bluntly that “the sacred image is not an illusion of reality, but reality itself.” (200) But Gadon does not realize that this willingness to valorize iconography – whether theological or visual, whether life-affirming or otherworldly – is a major root of much of the damage done by patriarchal systems that she decries. The kind of interpretation of the world that deliberately, knowingly, prefers its ideas, or theology, or goddess worship, over reality, and insists that reality will simply have to conform itself to those ideas is the same kind of interpretation that supports refusing women abortion as a life-saving medical treatment, because the reality of the woman’s death isn’t nearly as important as the invisible spiritual interpretation someone else has imposed.

What’s really valuable in this book is the material on contemporary culture, art, and the idea of the goddess. She could have written a perfectly good book about that without doing violence to prehistory and archaeology along the way. Her chapter on the artist as prophet of the Goddess’ reemergence offers a variety of visions of the Goddess in contemporary life and can be read as an invitation to the reader to join that process. I would think that knowing where that journey is headed would make the deep delving of the beginning of Gadon more relevant, more inspiring, and more worthwhile for women who haven’t yet encountered the reemergence of the Goddess, or haven’t encountered it as fully. She concentrates, as usual, on visual imagery, and runs the risk of making women who are not artists or whose artistry occurs in different media feel as if they are not as fully participating in the reemergence of the Goddess, but even for that, this material is uplifting and inspiring.

Towards the end of the book, Gadon acknowledges that there is no real evidence for the kind of society she spent so much time imagining, and mentions the fact that the mother goddess archetype puts too much emphasis on women’s reproductive capacity, but this two-page slice of reality does little to outweigh her first several chapters. (303-304)

Similarly, Gadon’s comment that “sacred narrative often preserves memories of how people experience cultural changes,” is very true and a much better statement of that fact than the overused trivialization that victors write history. (117) But her excellent suggestions about things like women reclaiming the process of birth from an overly-medicalized approach don’t have to be grounded in imaginary ancient sacred narrative to give them truth and power.

I disagree with Gadon’s essentialist take on femininity, but I agree that we – as part of the women’s spirituality movement and as part of the earth-centered spirituality movement – are participating in reconstructing the mythology and cultural consciousness of our time. I think we should try to do so on a stable and sustainable basis, rather than on fancies mistaken for fact. As a result, for a casual reader, I strongly recommend only engaging with the last part of the book and ignoring the prehistorical sections, if you read it at all.

The Great Cat in the Sky

Hecate recently quoted the new American Poet Laureate:

Isn’t that what it’s about –
pretending there’s an alert cat
who leaves nothing to chance.

And all the jokes about Ceiling Cat aside (srsly!), this made me think of one of the best fictional depictions of a pantheon and its myths that I’ve ever encountered, which occurs in Diane Duane’s Feline Wizards books.

Set in the same universe as her Young Wizards series, all species know that there is the One, the creator, and the Powers That Be, who serve the One, and the Lone One, who is the force of entropy but a necessary part of creation nonetheless. Each species has its own versions of these, though, and sometimes multiple versions. In The Book of Night with Moon, cat wizard Rhiow and her team struggle with reenactments and revisions of feline mythology and its intersections and interactions with other species’ myth and history. In the latest installment, The Big Meow, we get a vital addition to the mythology explaining how the feline version of the afterlife came to be.

So overall there’s a pretty viable pantheon, with their stories told in a comprehensive myth cycle that covers creation, the purposes of life, why death happens, and what comes after. Although the cats don’t practice formal rituals as such, there are also plenty of examples of how different cats relate – or don’t – to their deities. All in all, if someone wanted to work with this setting, they could. But would you?

Some ideas of working with imaginary pantheons are simply not tenable for me; I couldn’t keep a straight face through even a self-subverting chaos magic ritual that called on Star Trek characters, for example. But things like the ha-ha-only-serious rituals of Caffeina, or even chaos magicians working with Bill the Cat or with ferrets, those I can all imagine doing. In my particular urban area, I have learned to offer incense and to give praise and thanks to my own dear Asphaltia, Our Lady of Traffic and Parking Spaces.

This is one of the interesting things about not being constrained by the Christian emphasis on belief. I don’t have to believe that Bill the Cat is anything other than fiction; if the ritual does something for me, (even just a good laugh) that can be a good enough reason to do it.

On the other hand, the more I work with Asphaltia, and the more I get unexpected results from those workings, the more I wonder if she’s not actually a contemporary aspect of the deity of travel and travelers who has had many forms throughout the ages.

Star wrote recently about how we don’t create meaning ex nihilo, and that our relationships with the Powers That Be include ongoing revelation. Can some of these new deities – or old deities in new forms – be part of that ongoing revelation? Does it matter if that revelation comes originally in the form of fiction, like Duane’s work, or loving humor, like Caffeina?

What do you think about fictional or invented or “found” deities or powers? Do you work with them? Only with certain ones? Why?

Finally, I raise this question because I’d also like to find out if there would be any interest in me posting a creation myth I wrote based in part on Diane Duane’s felines. I adapted the pantheon slightly and told the story in form more similar to most Wiccan myths. If you’d like to see it, just leave a note in the comments or “like” this post.

Kore and the Eleusinian Mysteries: A Tarot Spread to Encounter Persephone

I’ve finished Level 2 of my studies with the Order of the White Moon! Here’s my goddess project for this level. It’s also in the OWM Goddess Gallery with images.

The rituals of the Eleusinian Mysteries centered on the worship of Demeter and her daughter Persephone. In the context of the Mysteries, Persephone was known by the title Kore, which means simply “Maiden.” Although the exact details of how Kore was worshipped in the Eleusinian Mysteries have been lost, you can use the Tarot spread in this project as inspiration for your own encounter with the goddess.

The Eleusinian Mysteries were a series of rituals that culminated in mystical initiation; they were held in and near the Greek city of Eleusis, a day’s walk from Athens, from approximately 1500 BCE to 392 CE. Even though the Mysteries endured for almost two millennia and attracted initiates from across the Hellenistic world, we know surprisingly few details, because initiates took a sacred vow of secrecy. We do know that they focused on the worship of Demeter and Kore. Reconstructing the Mysteries is a tricky process of interpolating the gaps in archaeological evidence with what we know about the myths of Demeter and Persephone/Kore. Since the myths themselves are many-layered and often conflicting, mythologists can end up going in circles.

One theory, advanced by authors following the lead of C. G. Jung and Karl Kerenyi, holds that the Mysteries included a ritual drama.  Initiates may have witnessed or even participated in a reenactment of Demeter’s search for Persephone after her abduction by Hades. The drama may have been drawn from the story as told in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter or the Orphic hymns, although there are multiple theories on exactly which parts of the many interlocking stories were told and how the drama had such a significant effect on the initiates. [1]

A second major theory emerged from scientific investigation into entheogens and their historical use. A ritual drink, the kykeon, was consumed during the Mysteries; ethnomycologists speculate that the kykeon may have been a hallucinogen. The kykeon, was made from barley, and barley can harbor the ergot fungus, which has been shown to produce chemicals related to LSD.  [2] This theory is improbable, given the difficulties of creating a safe and reliable hallucinogen with the technology of the day, especially since ergot is often poisonous. Extraordinary experiences were part of mystery cults, but any trance or ecstatic states were likely achieved through more reliable spiritual technologies such as fasting, dancing, and disorientation from sensory overload by sudden light and loud sounds. [3]

The most intriguing speculations have to do with the results of the ritual: many authors throughout the time of the Mysteries attested that initiates were unafraid of death. They reported that initiates were assured of having a special place in the afterlife which was much more pleasant and joyful than the rather dull and dreary existence led by the shades of the uninitiated. Since Persephone ruled as Queen of the Underworld, it made sense that she could provide special privileges for those who were devoted to her in life. [4]

We do know that large fire was lit in the main building on the night of the initiation. [5] One possibility is that in the climactic ritual, this fire may have been used in a symbolic way to make the initiates immortal, as the Homeric Hymn tells us Demeter tried to do with the infant Demophoon (whom she cared for while Persephone was missing). [6] Another possibility is that the rites were connected with an assurance of rebirth, since Persephone is also described in the Orphic hymns as “parent of the vine,” that is, of Dionysos (also called Zagreus and Euboleus), who died and was reborn multiple times in myth. [7]

The worship of Demeter and Kore was not just about the afterlife, though; another symbolic interpretation of the myths is that Kore is a personification of grain crops, literally the bread of life. One of the few statements we have about what went on at the Eleusinian Mysteries is that a single stalk of grain was exhibited, and even if that account is not reliable, Demeter and Persephone are both often shown with grain as their symbol or as as their gift to humankind. [8] Similarly, Hades, the god of the underworld was alternately known as Ploutos, the wealth-giver, who carries the cornucopia as a symbol of his relationship to abundance not just in terms of minerals below ground but also fertility above it. [9]

In the older Greek tellings of this myth, Persephone actually spent the summer underground, not the winter. In the Greek climate, grain was planted in the fall, grew over the winter, was reaped in the spring, and was stored for summer, often underground. Winter, not summer, was a time of growth and fertility. The heat of summer was seen as less lively and more dangerous, and summer was the military campaigning season. In contrast, winters were mild and rainy, and the time when growth was most abundant.  Kore is now thought of as a spring goddess, because retellings of the myth were adapted to fit other climates. However, the Eleusinian Mysteries echo the original Greek ecological rhythms. The  Mysteries were celebrated at the end of September or beginning of October, corresponding with the fall planting. [10]

One of the best introductions to the Eleusinian Mysteries is the first chapter of Hugh Bowden’s Mystery Cults of the Ancient World, where he describes the Eleusinian Mysteries as the most famous and best-known of all mystery cults. Bowden accepts that we cannot know precisely what occurred, but gives many details about the rituals that can be known, especially from relatively recently unearthed archaeological evidence. The festival was preceded by priests and priestesses of Eleusis going to Athens, taking with them sacred objects, hiera, in baskets. These objects were not shown to the uninitiated, and although we can speculate that they may have been statues or symbols such as a stalk of grain, we do not know for sure.

The festival started in Athens itself, where initiates had to go to the shore to wash themselves and a piglet in the ocean and then sacrifice the piglet. A few days later they walked in a processional to Eleusis, carrying the sacred objects back with them, and entered the sanctuary, where they rested and drank the kykeon. The secret initiation ritual took place at night, and the euphemistic descriptions of it usually separate it into three parts: things said, things shown, and things done. Of these, the things shown were the most important part. This was when the sacred hiera were exhibited, and the primary priest who showed them to the initiates derived his title from the role: he was the hierophant, he who makes the hiera appear.

This sacred vision, made possible by the large fire, is emphasized as the central part of the initiation by descriptions of initiates as those who had seen the Mysteries. This worship of Kore revolved around an encounter with her, coming face-to-face with the goddess through ritual, rather than on beliefs or explanations. Bowden suggests that initiates developed their own understandings of what they had seen and experienced, which helps explain the overlapping and even conflicting profusion of myths. This process of meaning-making is similar to the way we interpret a Tarot reading by reflecting on it to construct a coherent meaning in a particular context, adapting our understanding and the cards’ images to fit together smoothly.

This Tarot spread takes the form of a stalk of grain and can be an image for you to contemplate as you strive to connect with Kore. It could be done at the beginning of your relationship to her, to gain insight into ways you might try to get to know her better, or to gain insight into a past experience where you felt her presence in your life. Each position is named after something related to the Eleusinian Mysteries, indicating roles the cards can play in your experience. This spread is not as much about divination or understanding the future as it is a way to begin to have an encounter with the goddess. If you want to invoke her promise of guidance in the afterlife and potential for rebirth, light a candle, or better yet, do this reading by firelight.

Positions in the Kore spread

   9
6     8
   7
3     5
   4
   2
   1

1 – Offering: This card may symbolize what you need to give up or leave behind you as you begin your metaphorical journey. It may also be the thing you will do (rather than something to stop doing) to make an offering to the goddess.

2 – Procession: This card represents something that separates your everyday life from your experiences of encountering the goddess (future or past). It symbolizes both the way initiates plunged into the ocean and the long journey on foot to Eleusis afterwards.

3 – Torch: Something or someone who lights your way as you travel appears in this image. This may be closely related to Hecate, who helped bring Persephone back from the Underworld.

4 – Kykeon: Like the ritual drink of barley-water, this card is something that you take into yourself which is unique to your encounter with Kore, possibly something that takes the place of what you gave in offering.

5 – Basket: Representing the baskets in which secret sacred objects were carried in procession, this card holds an image of something that may have a meaning unique to you. What do you take with you to encounter the goddess?

6 – Things said: Interpret this card in the context of a communication that reflects a part of the mysteries of the goddess.

7 – Things seen: This is an experience that was part of the mysteries. Ask yourself how others have played the role of the goddess to you.

8 – Things done: Let this card inspire you to find ways that you may play the role of the goddess towards others.

9 – Stalk of grain: The way you find the encounter appearing in your everyday life afterward may be deceptively simple, but full of meaning. What will you take away from your encounter? What seeds will you plant? And what will your blessings or wealth be?

To make the “stalk of grain” shape more apparent, tilt the cards on either side (3, 6, 5, and 8) a little away from the central line.

Note that if the Hierophant card appears in this reading, it should be interpreted in a positive light with reference to the original hierophant’s role as a priest of Kore’s mysteries, and not with negative associations with hierarchy, rigidly formalized religion, or the Christian associations of the Pope.

Citations

[1] C. G. Jung and C. Kerenyi, Essays on a Science of Mythology: The Myth of the Divine Child and the Mysteries of Eleusis, trans. R. F. C. Hull. Princeton University Press, 1969, and Karl Kerényi, Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter, trans. Ralph Manheim, Princeton University Press, 1991. (Transliteration of Kerenyi’s first name varied between Carl and Karl.)

[2] R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hoffman, and Carl A. P. Ruck, The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978. First chapter available online.

[3] Hugh Bowden, Mystery Cults of the Ancient World, Princeton University Press, 2010, p 43.

[4] Bowden, p 26, 48.

[5] Kerenyi, p 92.

[6] Marvin W. Meyer,  ed., The Ancient Mysteries, a Sourcebook: Sacred Texts of the Mystery Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean World, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999, p 26.

[7] Meyer, p 104-5. Although the phrase is rendered there as “maiden rich in fruits,” the text still makes it clear that Dionysos is Persephone’s son. A different translation of the Orphic hymns including the phrase “parent of the vine” is available online.

[8] Meyer, p 19. This account is from Hippolytus, a Christian who was writing about the mysteries in a negative light without himself being an initiate, so it must be treated with care, but the repeated grain symbology elsewhere makes it one of the more likely possibilities.

[9] Wikipedia describes Plouton and Ploutos as being conflated although originally separate; in another instance of overlapping myths, one of them he may have been Demeter’s son who was merged into the figure of the other, her son-in-law. The Orphic hymns refer to him as Plouton and wealth-giver simultaneously.

[10] Bowden, p 31.

Just published! Anointed: A Devotional Anthology

Join me in celebrating the release of Anointed: A Devotional Anthology for the Deities of the Near and Middle East, edited by Tess Dawson! This project occurred under the auspices of Bibliotheca Alexandria, a project of Neos Alexandria that fosters Pagan writing and publishing.

It includes two pieces of mine, the poem “Call to Inanna,” which starts out:

Out of the depths, I call to you, Inanna!

Out of the depths of my fear, I call to you, holy priestess!

Out of the depths my call echoes up to you, Queen of Heaven!

Do not forget me!

Do not forsake me!

Do not abandon me to my fear!

and an article, “Facing Fear,” which describes how

The Call to Inanna can be used as a solitary ritual in order to have a cathartic confrontation with fear and reclaim your power in the face of that fear.

It also looks like there are some great resources on other, less well-known deities and cultures. I can’t wait to get my copy! If you have any interest in these deities, check it out. Please note that I get no money for this and do not have a financial interest in your purchase, but I encourage you to support Bibliotheca Alexandrina by buying through their site if you do want to get the book.