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

charon_by_vikkki

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?

passage_by_eilidh-d30sba6

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.

psyche_by_ryanjpedersen-d70rsml

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.

styx_by_aniaem-d4ex5ev

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

sunset_on_the_river_styx_by_dustinpanzino-d9s8bsv

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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The Melissae of Ancient Greece

[550] “But I will tell you another thing, Son of all-glorious Maia and Zeus who holds the aegis, luck-bringing genius of the gods. There are certain holy ones, sisters born — three virginsgifted with wings: their heads are besprinkled with white meal, and they dwell under a ridge of Parnassus. These are teachers of divination apart from me, the art which I practised while yet a boy following herds, though my father paid no heed to it. From their home they fly now here, now there, feeding on honey-comb and bringing all things to pass. And when they are inspired through eating yellow honey, they are willing to speak truth; but if they be deprived of the gods’ sweet food, then they speak falsely, as they swarm in and out together. These, then, I give you; enquire of them strictly and delight your heart: and if you should teach any mortal so to do, often will he hear your response — if he have good fortune. Take these, Son of Maia, and tend the wild roving, horned oxen and horses and patient mules.”                                          ~ HOMERIC HYMNS, TRANS. BY H. G. EVELYN-WHITE, IV. TO HERMES

According to the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, the Thriae were three nymphs who taught the art of prophecy to Apollo. Apollo taught it to Hermes, who was the god that escorted souls to the Underworld and then escorted them back into life again. They were the original Melissae, or bee nymphs of Mount Parnassus named Melaina (“the black”), Kleodora (“Famed for her Gift”), and Daphnis (“Laurel”). Often described as women with wings and hair that appears white because of how much pollen was covering it, they are generally considered to be the triple goddess aspect of The Pure Mother Bee, also called Potnia who was possibly the older Goddess that originally dwelled on Mount Parnassus before Zeus and his siblings came into power.

Later associated with Kore and the Eleusinian mysteries, this may have been the goddess that oversaw the infamous labyrinth in Crete where beekeeping was a sacred practice. In the Eleusinian Mysteries, the three Melissae represented Kore’s descent into the Underworld, Demeter’s search for Kore and finally Kore’s ascent back to the Upperworld.

Potnia means “the mistress” and is often associated with larger Earth mother figures such as Gaia and Rhea. Many priestesses of important goddesses were called “Melissae” or just simply “bees”. The Delphic Oracle herself was often called the Delphic Bee and the complex at Delphi was said to be based on a beehive. Potnia seems to have later evolved into various aspects of Artemis, Aphrodite, Demeter and Cybele. Though Artemis, as the goddess of the wild animals, is the goddess who most usually came to be associated with bees.

Bee and Stag Coin from Ephesus

Bee and Stag Coin representing Artemis from Ephesus

Another story tells of the nymph Melissa, who taught people about honey. She discovered the honey in a honey comb and taught people how to mix it with water and then drink it. She was considered one of the goddesses responsible for civilizing mankind. And thus the bee was named for her. The production of honey was considered to be magical and divine. Because of Melissa’s association with bees, Medieval beekeepers believed that without a virtuous (or civilized) beekeeper, the honey couldn’t be made. Honeybees are of course extremely important to agriculture in most areas of the world. While Medieval beekeepers didn’t know why, they did realize that the bees needed to be kept happy.

Melissa hid the baby Zeus from Cronus, his father, who was determined to devour him as he had done to Zeus’ siblings. She nursed Zeus with milk and honey. When Cronus discovered her role in sheltering Zeus, he turned her into an Earthworm. Zeus, in thanks for all she had done for him, then changed her into a bee instead and forever afterwards Zeus always loved honey.

A different story tells about an aging priestess of Demeter named Melissa who was initiated into Demeter’s mysteries by the goddess herself. When Melissa refused to tell the secrets of her initiation, other women tore her apart. In anger, the goddess Demeter sent a plague of bees against the jealous women.

Melissa was also associated with Artemis. Artemis eased the pain of mothers giving birth and Melissa sent the souls of the newborns to their bodies in the shape of bees. Aphrodite had her own association with bees and was often called Melissa, the Queen bee.

Alfred Dürer, 1514: Eros, Venus and the bees. Eros stung by a bee, when he inhaled the pleasant fragrance of a rose, went crying to take refuge in the arms of Venus,” Dear mother, I die, have mercy on me, a flying snake bit me painfully cheek.”

In all the stories, the Melissae are symbols of regeneration and renewal and are also usually considered to be associated with the Underworld.

The etymology of the word ‘fate’ in Greek offers a fascinating example of how the genius of the Minoan vision entered the Greek language, often visibly, as well as informing its stories of goddesses and gods.  The Greek word for ‘fate’, ‘death’ and ‘goddess of death’ is ‘e ker’ (feminine); the word for’heart’ and ‘breast’ is ‘to ker’ (neuter); while the word for ‘honeycomb’ is ‘to kerion’ (neuter).  The common root ‘ker’ links the ideas of the honeycomb, goddess, death, fate and the human heart, a nexus of meanings that is illumined if we know that the goddess was once imagined as a bee. (Anne Baring & Jules Cashford, “The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image.”)

The Melissae were virginal priestesses because of the pureness of the honey. They drank a “toxic honey” made from psychedelic plants to enable themselves to experience visions. Transgendered priests in the temples of Artemis were often called essenes or drones and were there to help the Melissae. Bees are also often called “veil-winged” and represent the veil you had to cross to reach the Goddess in the inner temple (I see this as initiation), and a woman’s hymen, which of course veiled her body from sexuality until she was initiated into womanhood. The Melissae were often consulted in matters of marriage.

Bees dance and so did the Melissae. Accordingly, this is part of the reason that Apollo, who learned the art of prophecy from the Melissae, was also the god of light and music. Sacred music and dance played an important role in the lives of the Melissae.

Bees, who are known for the industry and order, were also used as examples of how a Priestess should live her life: she helped her community, assisted in healing the sick, crafted tools and objects and were capable of giving someone a good “sting” or set down when they needed it.

Further Reading –

Priestesses of the Bee: The Melissae

The College of the Melissae: Center for Sacred Bee Keeping

Honeybee in Goddess Mythology

Bees and Honey in Greek and Roman Myth

The Eleusinian Mysteries and the Bee