An Offering to Charon – Guest Blog

My dear friend E is a rather eclectically minded kitchen-witch. She’s been struggling with huge life changes recently and has been going back and forth with me about offerings and ritual ideas to help her move forward. I love how she thinks and I thought you might be interested as well. Her thought processes, rational and creativity in how she approaches her work always puts things in a new perspective for my own work and inspires me further. I asked her to write a guest blog about this particular experience for multiple reasons, but I love Charon and think that he doesn’t get a lot of love these days. I also think that the mid/post divorce period is often ignored. I love her approach and hope for what she wants to accomplish here. Enjoy! ~Lauren

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Charon by Vikkki

An Offering to Charon

Charon the Ferryman is a figure from Classical (i.e., Greco-Roman) mythology. He brings the souls of the dead across the rivers Archeron and Styx and into the underworld, provided, of course, that the soul was buried with a coin to pay for the ferry ride. Charon is hardly the first or only such mythical figure, since cultures prior to the ancient Greeks also buried the dead with coins to ensure passage to the other side, but he is the one that was passed down to us via the Hellenic writings.

He transitioned more or less intact into modern Christian culture thanks to Dante. In Dante’s construct of Hell, Charon presides over passage across the River Archeron (the River Styx is an internal river that separates inner and outer Hell rather than the division between Earth and Hell) with essentially the same function and fee structure as in the Hellenic myths.

Several Greek and Roman heroes use Charon’s services to cross in and out of the underworld while living. The instance I am most familiar with comes from “Cupid and Psyche.” Psyche is given specific instructions on how to deal with Charon when she is sent to the underworld to retrieve a package from Persephone on behalf of Aphrodite: carry a barley honey cake in each hand to distract Cerberus (the three-headed dog) on the way in and on the way out, and carry two coins in her mouth to pay Charon for passage each way. According to Wikipedia, Charon gives all the male heroes grief about crossing while alive, as he does in Dante’s narrative; Psyche having no trouble could be read as the old seaman having a soft spot for beautiful young women, or as him not wanting to stand in the way of another god’s quest.

The instructions for crossing on Charon’s ferry are always essentially the same, namely, pay him his coin and don’t dawdle. Those rules make for a simple translation into modern ritual: pay Charon his fee when it’s time to make your crossing.

The only questions are how much to pay and how to offer it up to the ferryman?

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Passage by eilidh

I will come back to both questions in a minute. First, some context for what I need to do and why.

I am on the brink of divorce, after 5 years of marriage and seven months of separation. I have been saying since we separated and I learned this fundamentalist state requires a long waiting period between filing and granting of divorce, that I was in Limbo. When I started really working through the failings in my relationship, I realized I had been in a Hell peculiar to my own needs and wants and nightmares. The idea, then, of paying Charon to ferry me back across the River Archeron (I am using Dante’s construction of Hell, where Limbo is the first circle) was fairly obvious. I would do it the night before my court date, so there would be no impediment or delay in getting me back to the land of the living.

But then I realized: if I had been in Hell, I got there somehow in the first place – and I never specifically payed Charon for that journey. So I owed him a separate fare and an apology, which would need to be presented before making my simple payment for the ferry ride out of Hell.

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Psyche by ryanjpedersen

The (chronological) second fare, the one that I am paying right before court, was an easier one to work out. I tend to look for modern analogies to ancient figures when seeking a ritual structure. Lacking true ferrymen (yes, I know we have ferries here, but they are run by golems of the state, and I know from experience that there is no paying them anything but your exact fare and only your fare), I decided taxi drivers are the closest modern equivalent. After all, they take people from one place to another for a fee, and the verb “ferry” has been expanded to include being driven in any type of vehicle. Taxi drivers are also individual businessmen and often self-employed; they can exercise discretion in their payments in a way a government officer cannot. My analogical thinking went like this: if I need to pay Charon his fare, then I would need to pay a taxi driver for a ride I won’t take. I can’t just give a driver a big tip – that’s not a fare. To me the obvious solution is to give a driver a second payment and ask that he put it toward his next passenger. Obviously I can’t control whether he pockets the money or puts it on his meter, and even if he does put it on his meter in the real world someone is taking that trip. But not ME. Symbolically, metaphysically, I am paying fare for the journey I will metaphysically be making in the courtroom rather than a taxi ride.

As to how much – I decided $20 was a good number. Low enough that most people would be able to afford to bury a loved one with it to ensure passage, but high enough that it is substantive and represents a sacrifice. The only discussion I have seen about Charon’s fee structure in a modern pagan sense can be found here, and one of the interpretations supports the number. I am a mostly intuitive ritual-caster, and my instinct here is that $20 is the right number, so while I was happy to see an argument for that, ultimately what decided me was my own sense of rightness. For me I think the rightness is deriving from the sacrificial aspect. Yes, $20 is an affordable sacrifice, but it still represents something substantive that I will have to forgo off of that paycheck in order to offer it to the god.

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Styx by dalisacg

The apology ritual required a little more thought. I didn’t want to just do the taxi thing twice; it seems lazy, first of all, and second of all, it’s not much of an apology, is it, to simply perform the ritual I should have in the first place. No. Lauren mentioned that she intended to make a new moon offering at the river, with a quick-and-dirty explanation that new moon offerings represent changes and things that are building, and that making offerings at the river is basically mainlining them to a god’s ear. The new moon occurs a couple weeks before my court date and therefore well before the night I would be making my fare-pay offering, and it coincides with the date on which I got married – which seemed a fortuitous alignment for my work!

I decided that an offering closer to the original style would make for a better apology/back-payment. A coin, I thought, would be a good choice as a physical representation of his fee rather than the modern monetary value. And since I like to go for symbolism where it’s available, I decided one of the coins left from our honeymoon trip would serve very nicely as metaphysical reference to the actions previously taken. So that took care of payment. For an apology, I personally tend to offer food, so I procured some oil-cured olives and Italian red wine. Then, for ritual representation of Psyche’s successful (and unchallenged) crossing, I decided to bring cakes for Cerberus. Barley-cakes are what she brought, barley being the ubiquitous flour of the time and place. Here in Louisiana, cornbread is the go-to quick-bread, and I would rather acknowledge the time and place where I am than waste time hunting down barley flour and testing recipes. Thus, one tray of fresh-baked cornbread mini-muffins later, I had everything ready to go (my mini-muffin tray makes 6 cakes…Cerberus has 3 heads, one cake per head per ride…).

When it comes to words in my offerings/rituals, I generally prefer to speak extemporaneously in order to be sure it’s from the heart – that intuitiveness again – with at most an outline of what I need to say in mind going in.

My words to Charon needed to essentially be that five years ago I had snuck into Hell behind his back, and I was sorry for not paying him honestly up front, and would he please accept my payment now, along with my apology. Basically I just wanted to square up my account with him, monetarily and morally, so that I could offer payment at the appropriate time for my trip across the river to get out and have a reasonable assurance it would be accepted.

Fini

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Sunset on the River Styx by Dustin Panzino

We’ve all had moments where we wandered into Hell without realizing it. This struck me as an amazing way to end this cycle, make sure due has been paid and that one can bring themselves back to life. Charon is not unsympathetic to those who make the journey with him across the river and he knows that the living can’t stay in the land of the dead forever. But your must have your coin and you must acknowledge his role in this journey and when you’ve found yourself on the wrong side of the river, who else can bring you back?

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Dream Vision and “The Book of the Duchess”

If I haven’t mentioned it before now, I’m currently in graduate school working on my M.A. in English Literature. Of course my focus is on the Brits. This semester I’m taking a class on Later Medieval Dream Visions.

I was incredibly excited about this class and so far I have not been disappointed! If you’re unfamiliar with dream visions, they were (and are) a literary style where dreams are recounted for the benefit of the reader. People believed that these dream visions were sent to them from the divine and had important meaning that needed to be shared. Generally speaking they deal with quests for spiritual salvation or with unrequited love.

Usually a dream vision starts with the narrator telling about how they fell asleep. Once asleep, another important aspect of the dream vision is when the dreamer “wakes up” in the dream. The story of the dream itself is usually soaked in allegory. The dreamer will find a guide to walk them through the dream and help explain the message of the dream. The vision ends with the dreamer waking and promising to write the story down, hence the poem that is being read.

Before Christianity conquered Europe, the Celtic bards would sleep near a stream, believing that the spirit of the stream would give them a song or a vision of a song in their sleep. Some of the most famous dream visions are actually Welsh. The tradition of the dream vision is hundreds of years old and a highly favored medieval form of poetry.

Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy is one of the more famous of the dream visions. Boethius wrote it while he was in exile and describes his conversation with Lady Philosophy:

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Even so the clouds of my melancholy were broken up. I saw the clear sky, and regained the power to recognise the face of my physician. Accordingly, when I had lifted my eyes and fixed my gaze upon her, I beheld my nurse, Philosophy, whose halls I had frequented from my youth up.

‘Ah! why,’ I cried, ‘mistress of all excellence, hast thou come down from on high, and entered the solitude of this my exile? Is it that thou, too, even as I, mayst be persecuted with false accusations?’

‘Could I desert thee, child,’ said she, ‘and not lighten the burden which thou hast taken upon thee through the hatred of my name, by sharing this trouble? Even forgetting that it were not lawful for Philosophy to leave companionless the way of the innocent, should I, thinkest thou, fear to incur reproach, or shrink from it, as though some strange new thing had befallen? Thinkest thou that now, for the first time in an evil age, Wisdom hath been assailed by peril? Did I not often in days of old, before my servant Plato lived, wage stern warfare with the rashness of folly? In his lifetime, too, Socrates, his master, won with my aid the victory of an unjust death. And when, one after the other, the Epicurean herd, the Stoic, and the rest, each of them as far as in them lay, went about to seize the heritage he left, and were dragging me off protesting and resisting, as their booty, they tore in pieces the garment which I had woven with my own hands, and, clutching the torn pieces, went off, believing that the whole of me had passed into their possession. And some of them, because some traces of my vesture were seen upon them, were destroyed through the mistake of the lewd multitude, who falsely deemed them to be my disciples.

~From Song III – The Mists Dispelled

(If you would like to read the whole thing, you can find it here.)

Boethius had a huge influence on many medieval writers.

Bede was another famous dream visionary, as was Marie de France, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe and Dante (The Divine Comedy is one huge dream vision). Of course, one of the most famous was Chaucer.

Chaucer’s dream visions aren’t as well known as the Canterbury Tales, but I greatly prefer them.

“The Book of the Duchess” is one of my favorites. Chaucer wrote “The Book of the Duchess” for John Gaunt to memorialize Gaunt’s wife Blanche, who had died of the plague. While Chaucer wrote during the height of the courtly love tradition, it seems from the poem that John Gaunt might have truly loved his wife. This is one of Chaucer’s earliest works and it has been generally overlooked because of Chaucer’s youth when he wrote it. Chaucer was also a religious skeptic and one of the things that is extremely notable in the poem is that the Dreamer does not console the Knight he meets in his dream, who is mourning the death of Lady White, that she is safe in Heaven with God. The poem actually opens with a myth and an invocation to Juno and Morpheus.

The poem begins with the narrator recounting his insomnia of 8 long years. He decides to pick up a book of myths and reads the tale of Ceyx and Alcyone. Ceyx was a king who went on a journey, only to drown at sea. His wife, Alcyone, not knowing what happened to her husband, sent messengers everywhere searching for him. When no one could find out anything, she begged Juno to send her a dream vision of her husband’s fate. Juno does more than that. Juno sends for Morpheus to retrieve Ceyx’s body from the bottom of the ocean and then speak through him to his wife, letting her know that he was gone. The poet is inspired by the story and calls upon Juno and Morpheus to help him sleep.

I will return you to my original subject, the reason why I have told this story of Alcyone and Ceyx the king, for I dare say this much: I would have been entirely buried and dead, because of lack of sleep, if I had not read and heeded this tale. And I will tell you why: for I could not, for comfort or suffering, sleep before I had read this tale of this drowned Ceyx the king and of the gods of sleeping. When I had read this tale well and looked over every bit of, it seemed amazing to me that it would be so, for I had never heard mention before then of any gods that could make people sleep, nor to wake, for I had known only one god. 

And in my amusement I said then (and yet I had little desire to play) rather than I should so die through lack of sleep, I would give this Morpheus, or his goddess, Lady Juno, or some other creature, I care not who “Make me sleep and have some rest, and I will give him, or her, the best gift anyone ever hoped to receive. And into his possession, immediately, if he will make me sleep a little, I will give him a feather bed of down of pure white doves, arrayed with gold and finely covered in fine black satin from abroad, and many pillows, and every pillowcase of linen from Reynes, to sleep softly he will not need to toss and turn so often. And I will give him everything that belongs to a bedchamber, and all his rooms I will have painted with pure gold and arrayed with many matching tapestries. All this shall he have (if only I knew where his cave is) if he can make me sleep soon, as he did for the goddess, queen Alcyone. And thus this same god, Morpheus, may gain from me more rewards than he ever won; and to Juno, who is his goddess, I shall so do, I believe, whatever will please her.”

I had hardly said that word, exactly as I have told it to you, that suddenly, I know not how, such a desire overtook me to sleep that I fell asleep right on my book, and then I dreamed so inwardly sweet a dream, so wonderful a dream that I believe that no one has ever had the insight to interpret my dream correctly.

(I have to wonder if he followed through with his promises to Juno and Morpheus…?)

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File:Woodcut illustration of the goddess Juno as patron of marriage – Penn Provenance Project.jpg

In the vision, the Narrator, now the Dreamer, “wakes up” to hear birds singing. He hears the sounds of a hunt being called and rides out (on a horse that has apparently magically appeared in the chamber he has awoken in) to join the hunt. While on the hunt, he comes across a Black Knight composing lyrics about the death of a lady. When the Dreamer asks the Knight about the cause of his lament, the Knight replies that he has played a game of chess with Lady Fortuna and lost. The Dreamer begs the Knight not to be upset about the loss of a game of chess. The Knight goes on to explain his life and his service to Love and how he came to meet the fair Lady White. The Dreamer is somewhat obtuse and doesn’t understand that the chess game is a metaphor and that the Lady White is an actual lady. The Dreamer begs the Knight to continue with his tale. The Knight tells of how he fell in love and courted White, until at last, he finally won her and lived happily for many years. The Dreamer still doesn’t understand and asks the Knight where the Lady White is. The Knight finally replies that she is dead. The Knight rides off to a castle on a nearby hill and the poet awakes with his book in hand, promising that he will write the dream down.

“Sir,” I said, “where is she now?” 

“Now?” he said, and stopped at once. With that he grew as dead as stone and said, “Alas, that I was born! That was the loss that I told you before that I had lost. Remember how I said earlier, ‘You know full little what you mean by your words; I have lost more than you think.’ God knows, alas! She was that very person!”

“Alas, sir, how? How may that be?”

“She is dead!”

“No!”

“Yes, by my word!”

“Is that your loss? By God, that is such a pity!”

And with that word they quickly began to sound the hunting signal to head home; all the hart hunting was done for that time.

With that I thought that this king began to ride homeward to an adjacent place which was a short way from us a long castle with white walls, by Saint John, on a rich hill, so I dreamed; but thus it happened. I dreamed just as I tell you: in the castle there was a bell, and as it struck twelve, I awoke and found myself lying in my bed. And the book I had read, of Alcyone and Ceyx the king, and of the gods of sleep, I found wide open in my hand. I thought, “This is so strange a dream that I will, in the course of time, attempt to put this dream into rhyme as best I can, and do so soon.”

This was my dream; now it is done. 

Blanche of Lancaster

Blanche of Lancaster

There are many things that are interesting about the poem: the transitions of the narrator through the various dreams, the metaphor of the chess game, the comparison of black and white imagery, the Pagan mythology, the underlying sense that Chaucer is discussing religion, the Knight’s love of the Lady, the hart hunt, Chaucer’s understanding of mourning and his use of the Dreamer to actually get the Knight to express his grief…

But in the end, I just enjoy the poem. While John of Gaunt mourned for Blanche, he did remarry. Queen Elizabeth the Second is a descendant. But Blanche was forever immortalized by Chaucer in this very fitting tribute.

If you would like to read the full poem, you can find the translation here.

If you’re brave, the poem in its original Middle English can be found here.

Also, did you know that Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog? I certainly didn’t!