Don’t Look Back

Dead things…dead things everywhere! It is that time of the year when the veil is thin and it is so much easier to walk back and forth between the worlds. Lately, on our walks through New Orleans, we have been finding many dead things.

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Found dead, Acadian Flycatcher, photo by my S.O.

The weather is finally cooling off here in New Orleans and Fall is upon us. My mother sent me this beautiful picture from her garden in Ohio.

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Fate is weaving her web for the new year and it’s time to get ready for the winter.

This is of course the time of year when the Goddess is making her way to the Underworld and it’s hard not to think about Persephone and Inanna and all the other various Underworld Goddess tales we know. The Hades and Persephone myth is probably one of the most well known tales in any tradition or culture and at least here in the US, one that most of us find fairly early on. I grew up loving this story and it has been interesting for me over the years to see how my understanding of the tale changes over time and through aging.

I stumbled across this favorite tumblr meme recently and it always makes me laugh a little.

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The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice is of course an excellent example Hades allowing a soul to leave. Eurydice is bitten by a snake and dies and Orpheus, who loves his wife so much, goes to the Underworld to ask Hades to allow her to come back to life.

(You can find a beautiful reading of Virgil’s Orpheus and Eurydice in Latin here).

I’ve always disliked Orpheus. His inability to not follow Hades’ directions to not look back bothers me. How can you go through so much to give up at the last minute?

Orpheus is impatient and this is his downfall.

Looking at the dead or the divine or the sacred is a taboo in many cultures.

Semele looks at Zeus and is completely destroyed.

Those who look at the Gorgon are turned to stone.

Pysche looks upon Eros and is cast out of her home and away from her husband and she must venture to the Underworld to win her right to her divine husband back.

Lot’s wife looks back at Sodom and is turned into a pillar of salt.

Peeping Tom peeps at Lady Godiva as she rides by and is blinded for his lack of respect.

But why this rule in the case of Orpheus and Eurydice?

It is often believed that if Orpheus had looked back at Eurydice while she was still technically dead, he would have seen secrets that he, a mere mortal, literally couldn’t stand to see and would, like Semele, be obliterated by the sight of such immortal things.

In the mortal world, we find it important to look someone “in the eye.” Anyone who can’t do so, is generally considered to be deceitful or up to no good. So it’s interesting that not looking is such an important part of myth and fairy tale.

There are many recipes for salves to put on one’s eyes to allow you to see fairy. Of course, if the fey figure out that you can see them, there are also many stories of those who use the salves being blinded by the fey who know what they are doing.

It is never good to attract the attention of the divine or magical.

I stumbled across a short video series by Gia Coppola and Gucci for Vogue, the series is a retelling of the Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice using fashion and NY to express the familiar tale.

It’s beautifully done and I love this video series, because Coppola manages to make you understand why Orpheus looks back. In this scenario, I might have looked back too!

 

 

 

 

Aristaeus plays a big role here. In some versions of the tale, Aristaeus fell in love with Eurydice, chasing her so that she is caught unawares by the snake that bites her. Here it’s interesting that Aristaeus is a woman in red, which symbolizes things like love and lust and vanity. She cannot quit watching Eurydice, inadvertently killing the very thing she wants, which is later echoed by Orpheus himself: “Orpheus’s bomber is stitched with the words “L’Aveugle Par Amour”– blind for love. In the film’s last scenes, we hope Orpheus will heed the phrase and keep his eyes off Eurydice, even as we—and he—know that he won’t” (Studeman, 2016). Orpheus is so distraught over losing Eurydice a second time, that he disdains women for all time. Later, the Maenads tear him apart for this hubris.

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I think that one of the things these videos proves is that the old myths are never actually old. They are still relevant to us today and still have many things to teach us, even though things have changed so much between their origins and now.

Don’t look back at the things the gods give us. They bring us only heartache and ruin. The gifts of the divine, especially when we transverse the Underworld, should never be taken for granted.

Don’t eat the fruit of the gods or fairy, unless you’re willing to be entrapped and don’t look at the divine unless you want to lose everything.

During this time of year, when the veil is thin, this is an important lesson to remember.

 

References:

Bonaparte, M. (1954). The fault of orpheus in reverse. The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 35, 109. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1298189715?accountid=14437

Studeman, K.T. (2016). Gia Coppola’s New Film Takes Downtown Cool to Mythic Levels: A cast of Gucci-clad scenesters animate the director’s Orpheus series. W. Retrieved from http://www.wmagazine.com/culture/2016/06/gucci-orpheus-gia-coppola-lou-doillon/photos/

I’m Not In This Swamp

I picked up Death: The High Cost of Living by Neil Gaiman tonight for the first time in years. Neil Gaiman has had a great deal of influence on how I view the world, the gods, magic…well, generally everything. I had forgotten that Tori Amos wrote the introduction and tonight it struck a chord:

Instead, I dyed my hair and she [Death] visited me and I started to accept the mess I’m in. I know that mess spelled backwards is ssem and I felt much better armed with that information. Over the last few hours I’ve allowed myself to feel defeated, and just like she said if you allow yourself to feel the way you really feel, maybe you won’t be afraid of that feeling anymore.

When you’re on your knees you’re closer to the ground. things seem nearer somehow.

If all I can say is I’m not in this swamp, I’m not in this swamp then there is not a rope in front of me and there is not an alligator behind me and there is not a girl sitting at the edge eating a hot dog and if I believe that, then dying would be the only answer because then Death couldn’t come and say Peachy to me anymore and after all she has a brother who believes in hope.

 

Mabon and the Forgotten Queen

This was a blog post from Witches and Pagans originally posted on September 17th, 2012. Blodeuwedd is a goddess that I work very closely with.

 

Mabon is the Sabbat where the focus of the wheel of the year goes from Life and growth to Death and the harvest. It is when the young God experiences death and begins his journey to the Underworld. It is also when the White Goddess begins her descent to the Underworld to take her rightful place as the Queen of Death. The Welsh figure of Blodeuwedd is an often ignored facet of the Queen of Death.

Blodeuwedd is a Goddess that modern audiences have a hard time viewing outside of the lense of our industrial, patriarchal culture. Blodeuwedd, who comes to us in the Fourth Branch of the Welsh Mabinogion, is a woman created out of the flowers of the forest by the Gods Math and Gwydion who need a wife for Gwydion’s son Lleu; Lleu has been cursed by his mother, Arianrhod, to never take a human wife. Blodeuwedd’s story is often seen as one of rape and revenge, similar to the way the Arthurian legends are often treated. It is a story that most people never try to reconstruct with the meaning it might have had to pre-Medieval Welsh listeners. For modern listeners, Blodeuwedd is not seen as the White Goddess that she is; she is viewed as a woman torn between two lovers, such as the Medieval Iseult, or Shakespeare’s Juliet, and the tale of the two Gods/men (Lleu and Gronw) becomes one of lust and revenge.

Unlike the Greek myths, where we have the original stories “written” out to us by the Greeks themselves, the Mabinogion comes to us through the interpretation of the “modern” and patriarchal society who recorded it. Christian ideology overshadows the retelling of the stories, and these tales are doomed to be seen in the shadow of modern ideologies. Blodeuwedd as a Goddess is a victim not of rape, but of misinterpretation.

In the modern scenario, Blodeuwedd has no agency of her own as an individual and therefore no power as the Goddess that she is; she is the tool of the men around her, rather than a woman with true power. She becomes an excuse to shame women and is not seen as the force of nature she is, the force that assists in turning the wheel of the year. In this way, Blodeuwedd becomes similar to Pandora and Galatea, a plaything of a thunder wielding, sky father God. But let us remember that Blodeuwedd is a creature of the forces of land and nature worshipped by the agrarian Celts.

In the contemporary retelling of Blodeuwedd’s story, we sense that Math and Gwydion’s intentions are simply to create a wife for Lleu; that there are no other reasons that this woman needs to be brought into existence. But consider that Math and Gwydion create Blodeuwedd from the flowers of the forest, which symbolize the life and death aspects of the cycle of the year; they are intentionally drawing the White Goddess of the Underworld, the White Lady of Death, into the physical realm. Blodeuwedd of the Underworld is the balance to Lleu’s role as the Lord of the Sun.

Arianrhod, Lugh’s mother (another misunderstood Welsh Goddess), foreshadows the role that Blodeuwedd is to play. Lleu’s birth is seen as being shameful to her in the Christian context; she is not seen as the High Priestess figure who is helping her son through his initiations to gain the power that he is destined to inherit. Gwydion’s “trickery” to make Arianrhod name Lleu, by getting her to exclaim “the young lion has a steady hand” when he kills a wren (symbol of winter), is the first place where it is understood that Lleu has to kill the Old God in order to take his rightful place as God of the Sun. It is the starting point for the task that Blodeuwedd will assume in order to facilitate this cycle. Blodeuwedd’s lover Gronw is the wren that Lugh originally kills to claim his title. Life and Death work side by side to ensure this cycle continues.

Blodeuwedd is the physical manifestation of the Goddess of the Underworld. Just as Persephone in the Greek myths, Blodeuwedd is aware of what she is doing when she tasks Gronw with killing Lleu. Blodeuwedd’s “choice” between Lleu and Gronw is the neverending cycle of Growth and the Harvest. The Sun God must die so that winter may come: the cycle of death and rebirth again and again. Blodeuwedd is not just a woman who is torn between two lovers through Math and Gwydion’s magic; she is an incarnation of the White Goddess.

Blodeuwedd’s role in this cyclical story is an integral part of what Mabon symbolizes. When we forget the basic meanings behind the stories of our holidays or misinterpret their meanings, we forget the true importance of what we are celebrating. Blodeuwedd is not a light Goddess; she is the Dark that awaits all of us in the end, and her presence at Mabon should be considered in light of her true aspect.

Winter in New Orleans: News and Notes

Three weeks ago we had snow and ice for the first time in New Orleans in five years! It’s pretty rare that we actually get cold weather like that down here. People back home in Ohio always laugh at me when I complain about the cold. While it usually only gets down into the 20s and 30s for a few weeks, very few of us have central heat. And most of us live in really old houses that were built to stay cool in the intense heat of our summers. The houses are raised off the ground and have no insulation. While they do an excellent job of staying cool in the summer, there is no way to stay warm in the winter! Two weeks ago, I went into my office, which also does not have heat and found that it was a balmy 49 degrees. Cold like this is draining and hard to recover from, even when dressed warmly.

It was however, the perfect weather to really embrace Yule and Imbolc. Winter is of course the time of death and the resting Earth and sometimes it’s hard to really take a moment and enjoy that stillness and have that break when things never really take a wintry break. The frost and ice actually allowed us to have a winter this year!

But, I will admit that I was happy to have nice weather return. It’s been in the 60s and beautiful the last week and just in time for Mardi Gras! Walking into work the other morning I walked past this:

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And so the cycle starts all over again: life to death to life.

Just some quick announcements!

I just wrote an article about my partner, Kenny Klein for The Green Egg, one of the oldest running Pagan magazines in America! Their Imbolc edition is now out and is available in print for the first time in years. You should go buy a copy and check it out! The article is titled “Kenny Klein: A Kiss in the Dreamhouse.”

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The new book from Llewellyn is also coming out soon and you can now preorder it from Amazon!

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Last weekend, while at Pantheacon, I sat on a Llewellyn panel about death and ancestor work. The Wild Hunt posted a picture!

From left to right: Tess Whitehurst, Elysia Gallo, Tony Mierzwicki, Jhenah Telyndru, Me, Stephanie Woodfield, Kenny Klein

From left to right: Tess Whitehurst, Elysia Gallo, Tony Mierzwicki, Jhenah Telyndru, Me (Lauren DeVoe), Stephanie Woodfield, Kenny Klein

Last night was my subkrewe’s inaugural march in Chewbacchus, our science fiction and fantasy geek parade! The Party Elves of Mirkwood was a hairbrained scheme cooked up to honor the Randy Thrandy meme from The Lord of the Rings. We had a heck of a lot of fun and think others did as well. You should have been there! It’s totally started my Mardi Gras season off with a bang and is only the beginning! But I was briefly interviewed in The New Orleans Advocate during Comic Con about Chewbacchus, which was a lot of fun.

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A Few Thoughts On Death

I’ve spent the last few days at Pantheacon. I’ve been having a great time and I’ve gotten to talk to a lot of awesome people. Today, I got to sit on a panel for Llewellyn on ancestor work and death.

It was a great conversation and I thought I would bring it over here for a second.

Death is definitely one of the things that brought me to Paganism in the first place. My family, on both sides, seem to have a strong connection with death.

My great grandfather was in the the last moments of his life when he suddenly looked peaceful. When his children asked him what he was looking at, he said that he could see his wife (who had died several years before) and that she was standing in a garden, waiting for him.

My great aunt died. The doctor declared her dead and one of my aunts let out the death wail, a traditional Celtic keening done at the death of a loved one. My great aunt sat back up, looked at the aunt who had wailed and said “Can I die yet?” When my poor aunt nodded, my great aunt laid back down and was gone once again.

My grandmother had Alzheimers for nearly 20 years. For whatever reason, she seemed to be scared to die. My grandfather had died when he was 52, they had been married for 35 years and my grandmother never remarried. The night before she died, I dreamed about meeting my grandfather (who died nearly 30 years before I was born) at my grandmother’s house. It was an awkward meeting, we both knew that we had no business seeing each other, but we waited in my grandmother’s living room for those last long hours together, he sitting on the ugly plaid recliner in the corner and me on the small loveseat by the organ, never saying a word. I woke up in the morning and received the phone call from my father that my grandmother had finally passed on. It made me feel better to know that he was waiting for her.

My father constantly talks to an entity he calls his guardian angel, but I always feel Death in the room.

In New Orleans, we are constantly surrounded by death. But we celebrate life’s passing and don’t let it get us down. We see life as a dance that eventually has to end for everyone. For funerals, we second line. The first line of a procession is the casket, the second line is the band. We parade someone home to their final resting place and this always seems like a fitting way to go out.

What do I personally believe? As a Wiccan, I believe that the soul passes on from this world to what many call the Summer Lands. There, the soul is able to take a break, rest and heal. In the Charge of the Goddess, we are promised peace, “upon earth I give the knowledge of the spirit eternal; and beyond death, I give peace unutterable.” Once the soul has taken the time it needs, I believe it moves on to the next life.

As a priestess, I believe that I’ve dedicated my life to the service of the gods and I don’t believe that this service will ever end. I think the gods send us where we are most needed next, whether that be for us to learn new lessons or for us to continue to give the service that is most needed.

Discussing death is extremely important. I want to make sure that my final wishes in how my final moments and my funerary rites are handled are done in the way I want them to be done. I don’t think that death is scary, it’s simply the transition to the next phase in the journey. Unfortunately, as Pagans, we sometimes have to fight family and society to ensure our final moments are handled the way we wish them to be. I know too many people who have had families who have refused to honor their last wishes. I have DNR signed and I already own my burial plot in the family cemetery. Death is certainly not always easy or peaceful and having these details dealt with ahead of time will hopefully make the process a little smoother when the time comes.

1003435_10101134922912258_718613055_nIs this morbid? Maybe. But I sleep better at night know that my family knows that I don’t want to linger in case the worst happens.

It’s important to remember that those who came before us do still have an impact on our lives today. If nothing else, their blood and their genetic memory flows through our veins. I look at pictures of my family from a hundred years ago and see my own face staring back at me. I don’t know that in life, my family would agree with my path, but I think that in death they understand a much greater universal truth about acceptance. As another priestess said to me, death is the great equalizer and after we die, the minor details of lifestyle choice are no longer important. They don’t care that I practice something differently than they did, they do care about the fact that I am their present and might, just might, bear their future.

Death is the last great mystery that we all have to deal with in our own way. After all, nobody gets out of this life alive.

The Rusalka

I am a huge opera fan. I grew up going to the opera with my mother. Carmen was my first opera experience and while it’s not one of my favorites, it certainly left a vivid impression on my imagination. Somewhere I have pictures of 8 year old me dressed up as Carmen for Halloween. Looking back on it, I’m not sure Carmen was quite the appropriate persona for an 8 year old to try and embody, but… Carmen opened the door to the wonderful world of opera for me ever after.

Strangely enough, New Orleans does not seem to have a lot of opera, even though it was the first place in America to have one! This year there are only two being shown here. (And sadly enough, the first one is happening while Kenny and I are at Pantheacon next week. Come out and say hi!) So…I’m really glad that the AMC movie theaters are presenting The Metropolitan Opera Live in HD. If you’re an opera fan and aren’t familiar with this series, you’re missing out. AMC streams the New York Metropolitan Opera live during one of their performances and then presents an encore two weeks later. You get a front row seat for some of the most beautifully put together operas in the world.

This week, they presented Dvorak’s Rusalka. This is one of my favorite operas, which has one of my favorite arias. Renee Fleming, who considers “Song to the Moon” to be one of her signature arias, performs the lead character, Rusalka. (This is also a fitting topic for the Olympics this week).

Mesiku na nebi hlubokem
Svetlo tve daleko vidi,
Po svete bloudis sirokem,
Divas se v pribytky lidi.
Mesicku, postuj chvili
reckni mi, kde je muj mily
Rekni mu, stribmy mesicku,
me ze jej objima rame,
aby si alespon chvilicku
vzpomenul ve sneni na mne.
Zasvet mu do daleka,
rekni mu, rekni m kdo tu nan ceka!
O mneli duse lidska sni,
at’se tou vzpominkou vzbudi!
Mesicku, nezhasni, nezhasni!

Moon, high and deep in the sky
Your light sees far,
You travel around the wide world,
and see into people’s homes.
Moon, stand still a while
and tell me where is my dear.
Tell him, silvery moon,
that I am embracing him.
For at least momentarily
let him recall of dreaming of me.
Illuminate him far away,
and tell him, tell him who is waiting for him!
If his human soul is in fact dreaming of me,
may the memory awaken him!
Moonlight, don’t disappear, disappear!

Not only is this a beautiful invocation of the Moon, but I love the story and the explanation of the Rusalka in the opera.

In traditional fairy lore, the Rusalka is a Russian fairy who lures young men to their deaths in ponds and streams. She is very similar to Jenny Greenteeth and the Lorelei. The Rusalka lives at the bottom of waterways and comes out at night to dance on the shores. If she saw a handsome man, she would capture him with her beauty and song and lure him to a watery grave.

In Russian myth, the Rusalka is the spirit of a woman who died young, usually from suicide or during a pregnancy. The great grief that caused the death ensured the young woman’s spirit would linger.

Rusalkas don’t just lure young men to an early grave, they also bless the surrounding fields with abundance and fertility. In many ways, the Rusalka are very similar to the mermaids of Western European lore. They like to sit in trees or on docks and sing music, siren like, calling men to their doom.

In June, the Rusalka are supposedly at their most dangerous. They come out of their waters and dance and swing through birch (a tree that banishes evil and builds courage) and willow (a tree of enchantment and music that is often seen as a tree for female rites of passage) trees. Many women go out during Rusal’naia and leave offerings to appease the Rusalka and also set out protective charms to ward them off. No one swims during this week, just in case… People also do a ritual with a birch tree, where a tree is brought in from the forest and is seen to represent the vegetative power of the land. Young women dance and sing around the birch, making it promises for the coming year. At the end of the week, the semik as it is called, is drowned, to ensure that the land will have enough water throughout the rest of the year.

The Rusalkas are a particularly femininely inspired spirit.

In the opera, Rusalka falls in love with a human prince who hunts around her lake. She goes to her father, a water-goblin and begs him to tell her how she can be with the prince. Even though he warns her that it’s a bad idea, he sends her to the witch Ježibaba, who can turn her into a human woman. Ježibaba warns Rusalka that if she becomes human, she will lose the ability to speak (gee, where have we heard this story before?) and if the prince betrays her, both she and the prince will be damned. Rusalka drinks the potion that Ježibaba has given her and the Prince finds her and takes her home with him.

The Prince plans the wedding, but many people in his household suspect witchcraft and treat Rusalka badly. A foreign princess comes to the wedding and slowly lures the prince away. When it looks like the prince will choose Rusalka over her, the foreign princess curses them and the prince finally rejects Rusalka. Rusalka flees back to her father and the foreign princess scorns the prince. Ježibaba tells Rusalka that if she kills the prince, she can save herself, but Rusalka refuses, throwing the dagger that Ježibaba has given her into the lake. Her grief and rage turn her into a spirit of death, and Rusalka begins haunting the lake. The Prince comes to the lake searching for Rusalka. He begs her to kiss him, even though he knows that it means his death. He dies and Rusalka’s father comments “All sacrifices are futile.” Rusalka thanks the dead prince for allowing her to experience human love. She returns to the lake, forever after an evil fairy.

I think the moral of the story is that love changes us and not always for the better. It’s a force that can have long lasting consequences. So love well and be faithful, otherwise you might end up as an evil fairy in a dreary lake forever luring young men off to die and seriously, who wants that?

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The Golem

While we were in LA, we went to LACMA. One of their current exhibits is “Masterworks of Expressionist Cinema: The Golem and Its Avatars” and one of the focuses of the exhibit was the film Der Golem: Wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came into the World).

It was a fascinating exhibit (you can read more about it here). But the golem itself is a really interesting bit of Jewish folklore.

Traditionally formed out of clay, a golem is created in clay by a rabbi in imitation of how God created man. By inserting the word emet (אמת, “truth” in Hebrew) on the Golem, the rabbi breathes life into his creation after many other magical incantations and prayers. To “kill” the golem, the e in emet would be removed, which changes the word from “truth” to “death” (met מת, meaning “dead”).

Golems were creatures created to protect the Jews. The most famous story of a golem is the story of Rabbi Loew and the golem he created to protect the Jews in Prague in the 16th century against antisemitic attacks. The story goes that golems were not allowed to be active on the sabbaths (there are all kinds of reasons why, but one says that the golem would go on a murderous rampage instead of being protective) and so Rabbi Loew would deactivate the golem every Friday evening. One weekend, forgetting to deactivate the golem, Rabbi Loew had to trick the golem into dying. When he manage to deactivate the golem, it fell to pieces. The body was taken to the attic of the synagogue where legend has it, it will rise again when needed. While the attic has since been renovated and no evidence of the golem was found, some stories say that it was reburied in a graveyard in Prague and waits for a need to rise again to this day.

Want to create your own? This article says it can tell you how! Well, really it tells you that it’s a lot harder than you might expect.

Or, if you want a bit of a giggle, The Best of Craigslist always delivers: Looking for Rabbi Versed in DARK TALMUDIC ARTS to create GOLEM.