There Was an Old Woman

Casting circle for me is one of most integral parts of a Wiccan ritual. I love sweeping and I love the song we use to sweep, but the chant I was originally taught when I came into my tradition that I have been using for casting was just ho hum and I just don’t like casting a ho hum circle!

This chant was not the first circle casting used by my tradition and it certainly won’t be the last, but this particular one never sat right for me when I used it. There are several versions of it around and none of them felt right either.

And while it was suggested that I could write my own, I am a terrible poet and I have a love/hate relationship with Wiccan rhyming anyway.

So, I’ve been looking for something different for a while and I think that finally found the one that works for me!

This rhyme is an old Morris dance that was adopted in the 1700s as a Mother Goose rhyme. There are several versions of it around, but I like the old Morris one the best:

There was an old woman tossed up in a blanket
Ninety nine miles beyond the moon.
And under one arm she carried a basket
And under the other she carried a broom
Old Woman! Old Woman! Old Woman! cried I!
Oh wither! Oh wither! Oh wither so high!
I’m going to sweep cobwebs beyond the sky
And I’ll be back with you by and by.

Morris dance is a great tradition to draw on for folkloric practices anyway. While we can argue over how old the practice of modern Wicca is, I think that details like this prove the very long actual folkloric practices of particular rituals and actions in Britain. Morris dance is very good proof of just how long these practices and beliefs have existed.

I love the imagery of the old woman being tossed up with her broom into the sky to make sure there are no cobwebs. It works for new moons when the moon is unseen and for full moons when the moon is blazing. And what is more traditional in witchcraft than an old woman doing things that no one else will?

Plus it just makes me want to dance as it rolls off the tongue, and what could be better?

The energy of my circle has picked up quite a bit and it definitely took my coven a few circles to deal with the change in energy. It has been both uplifting and energizing!

This website traces a piece of artwork that is tied to the literary history of this poem and also introduces this other, similar yet much longer version:

THE OLD WOMAN AND HER CAT

There was an old woman, who rode on a broom,
With a high gee ho! gee humble;
And she took her Tom Cat behind for a groom
With a bimble, bamble, bumble.

They travelled along till they came to the sky,
With a high gee ho! gee humble;
But the journey so long made them very hungry,
With a bimble, bamble, bumble.

Says Tom, ‘I can find nothing here to eat,
With a high gee ho! gee humble;
So let us go back again, I entreat,
With a bimble, bamble, bumble.’

The old woman would not go back so soon,
With a high gee ho! gee humble;
For she wanted to visit the man in the moon,
With a bimble, bamble, bumble.

Says Tom, ‘I’ll go back by myself to our house,
With a high gee ho! gee humble;
For there I can catch a good rat or a mouse,
With a bimble, bamble, bumble.’

‘But,’ says the old woman, ‘how will you go?
With a high gee ho! gee humble.’
You shan’t have my nag, I protest and vow,
With a bimble, bamble, bumble.’

‘No, no,’ says old Tom, ‘I’ve a plan of my own,
With a high gee ho! gee humble;
So he slid down the rainbow, and left her alone,
With a bimble, bamble, bumble.

So now if you happen to visit the sky,
With a high gee ho! gee humble;
And want to come back, you Tom’s method may try,
With a bimble, bamble, bumble.

I love the rainbow bridge idea, which of course makes me think of the messenger Goddess Iris and the Norse Bifröst. The rainbow is good example of something that is a boundary between the worlds, which is exactly what one needs to think about while casting a circle. This old children’s rhyme also shows how much magical lore and theory can be found in the rhymes and fairy tales that we grew up with. I keep telling my students that you have to know your fairy tales and children’s rhymes for when you are practicing spell work.

One of my favorite fairy tales is “The Buried Moon.” In this strange story, the moon decides to investigate what sorts of evil creatures come out to haunt the bog when she isn’t shining in the sky and gets captured under a large rock! When the moon disappears, the villagers get worried and are frightened. Eventually a traveler hears her cries and seeks out the village wise women to figure out what the villagers should do to rescue her. The wise women tells the villagers: “Go all of ye, just afore the night gathers, put a stone in your mouth, and take a hazel-twig in your hands, and say never a word till you’re safe home again.” Hazel is a wood associated with knowledge and stones can both ground you and allow you to see the fairy world. Its these types of tidbits that we can certainly still learn from today! If you want to read the full story, it can be found here.

What circle castings do you use and why?

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The Service of Invocation

This is from Witches and Pagans and was originally published on the 24th of May, 2013:

 

Invocation is one of the penultimate acts that a Priest or Priestess can perform, for themselves or in a group ritual.

This ritual is one of the things that separate us from other religions. In some ways, it is the most important act that we do for our covens. Through our priests and priestesses, coveners can speak directly to our deities.

And it seems to be an element that is disappearing from many modern Pagan rituals, or is being replaced by the reciting of the Charge of the Goddess or another sacred text. (This is not to say that in and of itself this is not a powerful thing, but it is not what traditional practice defines as invocation).

Invocation is one of the true “mysteries.” Learning to invoke or “Draw Down the Moon/Sun” is not something that the raw beginner should ever attempt. Inviting a deity to use you as a vessel to speak though is an extremely serious matter. A great deal of traditional training is about working someone up to the point where invocation can be done safely, and the practitioner can manage to come back from it without consequence.

Full on invocation is akin to a spiritual possession. When channeling deity, you are not the one in charge. In Voodoo, they say that you are “ridden,” and I think this is the best description of what happens when you invoke fully.

When my partner invokes, his eyes change color, he smells different, he moves differently and the “person” looking out at me through him is definitely no longer the same one that was there before. It’s scary, it’s comforting, it makes me want to laugh and yet weep hysterically at the same time. I never know whether I should throw my arms around him or prostrate myself on the ground. I’ve been given riddles, words of encouragement and full on lectures during these moments. Sometimes it lasts for a long time, sometimes for mere seconds. Sometimes the God looks out at me, winks and then leaves again.

Many people have told me that the things that occur when deity is invoked have been some of the most important and life changing spiritual moments they’ve ever experienced.

Anyone who tries to convince you that invocation is not a serious act is selling something. Even those people I know for whom invocation has come easily have always stressed the importance of understanding that you are channeling deity and that “you” are no longer at home.

Over at Patheos Pagan, Sable Aradia wrote a column titled “Seekers and Guides: A Balm for a Pagan Plague – High Priestess’ Disease (Part 1)”, where she talks about some of the same issues that I brought up in my last blog here at Pagan Square. Sable Aradia is discussing “the spiritual malaise that causes some of us to develop an inflated sense of our importance and “power trip” on being a Wiccan Priest(ess)”. She discusses the fact that the Craft gives people who have considered themselves to be without power a place to wield power. She also discusses that these Ego trips can be tied back into the work we do in the Craft, specifically invocation, stating:

Wicca is a mystic’s path. Ultimately, its greatest mystery is union with the Divine; what we call “Drawing Down the Moon” and “Drawing Down the Sun.” In order to achieve that, we must break down the dross of our personalities. Not all of our personality, just the stuff that interferes with our ability to channel our Divine Selves. Think of it as a refining process. We are trying to become better conductors. Pure gold is the best conductor for electricity, and pure copper follows that, but elements are rarely pure in nature and so they must be melted, tempered, and beaten in order to reach that state of purity. We are no different; and frankly, the process hurts and we resist. However, the more we resist, the greater the pain. Someone who is suffering from High Priestess’ Disease is having their ego challenged and they are resisting alchemical transformation of the spirit. That is why Wicca demands that we choose this path of our own free will.

While Sable Aradia’s point about Ego trips and Priest/ess power trips is certainly a valid one (and I agree with all of the other points she brings up), I disagree somewhat with this assessment of invocation. For me, invocation is completely giving up my “self” and retreating to the deepest reaches. It is staying behind, while She moves forward. It is not a matter of resisting; it is a matter of knowing how to stay still. There is no room or place for Ego in that moment. In some ways, I have to understand my boundaries even more clearly than before, so that I can stay as far back within them as I can to let Her take my place in my physical self. This is not a breakdown of my “self;” it is in some ways the ultimate definition of self. I have to understand myself to pull everything I am back, and leave it behind while She decides to use my physical form for Her voice. It is not something for me to resist, it is something for me to consent to. It is not pain, it is joy.

This is not a challenge to my ego, it is a complete override of my ego. After each experience, I am overwhelmed that She has been present within my lowly, physical being and I feel humbled at the honor of Her presence.

I see these issues with ego in regards to both sides of invocation as coming from the lives we lead outside of the Craft, not the actions we work within it. In learning how to invoke, I have learned an even greater respect for those Priests and Priestesses who have gone before me. As a Priestess, my ego needs to be left at the door. When I took on that role, I left my right to my ego behind. I serve a greater purpose for both myself and for others. When invoking, I am not looking for respect or power, I am looking to be a vessel to serve my group. She is not asking me to break myself apart, but simply that I step back and let Her through.

Invocation is a service that I give of myself. It is something that should never be demanded of someone or be used to judge the “power” of someone’s priest or priestesshood. Every time someone invokes, there is that small possibility that they won’t come back from the experience. It is, in some ways, the ultimate sacrifice. Anyone who sees invocation as a place to claim ego has missed the point entirely. This issue of ego is not found through the personal refining processes of the Great Work, it is something that hasn’t yet been discarded in this person’s transition from mundane life to Priestesshood.

Yes, respect the person who is invoking. Support them when they need a moment to recover, and recognize the service they are giving, but more importantly, listen to the presence that has come through them and take away from it that sense of wonder that can be found in coming face to face with the divine. Invocation is powerful, but not because of the Priest or Priestess doing it. It is powerful because of what it manifests, and that we get to have for a the barest sliver of a moment the center of that focus.

Wicca and Personal Gnosis

One of the most important parts of a  traditional Wiccan training is to teach a seeker how to talk to the Gods on their own, with no intervention of a Priest or Priestess. While the job of a Priest or Priestess is certainly about assisting people in communication with their Gods, any initiate of a Wiccan tradition should be taught how to be able to do this on their own. In my tradition, a great deal of the work and training I do goes towards being able to talk to my Gods directly. I always hate it when I see people complaining about Wicca because “who needs a Priest or Priestess to speak to their Gods for them, isn’t that what Christianity does?” These people clearly don’t understand that the whole point of this process is to put you, the individual, in a position where you can communicate with the Divine. A great deal of the training you receive in a BTW coven deals with how you can talk to the gods directly, on your own: with the knowledge of how to do the work to create a relationship with the Gods and how to do it safely so that you don’t burn yourself out, get stuck, or burn your house or your neighbor’s house down. Speaking to the Gods directly can go really, really wrong if not done properly. Look at the myth of Semele, the mother of Dionysus. Hera tricked her into making Zeus show himself to her in all of his true divinity. She was pretty much obliterated on the spot. There are a lot of stories like this out there. We have learned, through the ages, and a great deal of trial and error, that there are better and worse ways to speak to the Gods, and that it is usually wise to be careful about these sorts of things.

semeleWe do traditional invocation in my coven, which is where a Priest or Priestess gives their body and voice up to their God or Goddess so that that Gods can speak directly through us. We don’t simply do an elaborate reading the Charge of the Goddess or some other reading in Circle; our Gods inhabit us. There is a great deal of training that goes into that as well as the knowledge that this is inherently dangerous to the one who is invoking.  We speak directly to the Gods. When my partner invokes, he doesn’t remember what he’s said or what he’s done, he isn’t there any longer. When I invoke, I go so far into myself, all I see is Her. My physical presence is no longer there, my body is no longer a consideration, what is going on in Circle is no longer important for me to be aware of. I am held entirely by Her presence in me.

So, with all of this talking directly to the Gods, as one might expect, there is a great deal of unverified personal gnosis involved. The tradition itself has it’s own personal gnosis and stories about experiences with the Gods, and each individual Priest or Priestess has their own personal gnosis that they bring to their covens and their teachings. These are part of the things that my tradition would offer you: other traditions inevitably have their own personal gnosis in regards to the Gods as well. Different paths treat personal gnosis differently. This is a part of the body of work that any tradition would offer to teach you. This is why it is also generally important to take the Gods that a tradition or coven works with into consideration when you are considering joining that group. If that tradition doesn’t work with the Gods and Goddesses that you do, it probably isn’t the right tradition for you.

Personal gnosis is something that differentiates modern polytheism from the polytheism of the ancients. It is something that proves that our Gods and our mythology are an ever living, ever evolving religion. As a modern practitioner, the experiences I have of my Gods aren’t stuck in the past. My own personal experiences move my tradition forward for the next generation of practitioners. We are constantly adding to the traditions we practice.

But, and I think this is the important part, your own personal gnosis doesn’t just simply wipe away the body of everything that has come before.

As a Priestess, it is my job to be a repository of all of the traditional myths and legends of my particular Gods. Before I worked to invoke for myself, I was responsible for learning those myths and learning how to interpret and discuss those myths. Just because we end up with our own personal gnosis does not mean that we get to ignore the creation myths and the early stories of our Gods. Our personal gnosis doesn’t negate those principle teachings.

Part of understanding those early stories is understanding the cultures and the history that created them. It’s in looking at how we know those myths: the Greeks and Romans wrote them down directly for us to read in the original today; the Celts had their mythology translated by Christian monks who either deliberately altered them, or simply didn’t understand that these were myths about the Gods. (Look at the translations of the Mabinogion…we know that these are stories of the Gods, whereas the monks who translated them, changed them into stories of normal humans who do some magical things). How does this change our perspective on these myths and how we interpret them?

Reading, learning and understanding mythology is a lifelong task. Add personal gnosis to the mix and we can begin to see why traditions don’t just die out. Personal gnosis keeps us continually on our toes when it comes to our religious paths.

But I also think it’s important to remember where myths and legends of our Gods came from in the first place. Your personal gnosis is relevant to you, but maybe not to the person who works elsewhere with the same God or Goddess. Elani Temperance summed this issue up beautifully over at Pagan Square. She said:

One of my major struggles with UPG [Unverified Personal Gnosis] is that the mere mention of it often seems to cut short any form of discussion about the subject or, and I find this more worrying, UPG gets used to prove a standpoint. The problem with UPG is that it, by its very nature and definition, can’t be verified. It can therefor never be used to give credit to or discredit a viewpoint or hypothesis. I can’t rightfully say: ‘Athena’s eyes are blue’. What I can say is ‘I believe Athena’s eyes are blue’.

Personal gnosis is important in anyone’s personal path with deity. Some of my most important moments have been through personal gnosis. But my personal gnosis is very small in the face of the wider body of work around my Goddess and God. As a priestess (or priest) I think it’s important to remember that.

Jeanne D’Arc Rides in New Orleans

Last night I went to one of the first parades of the New Orleans Mardi Gras season, the Krewe de Jeanne D’Arc Parade.

Joan of Arc is the patron saint of New Orleans; that should come as no surprise. She was the Maid of Orleans, after all. New Orleans is a very Catholic city, and St. Joan is one of my favorite parts of the Catholic mythos. Joan of Arc’s birthday is January 6th, which coincides with Twelfth Night; a very important night for any city that celebrates Carnival. (This year marked her 60oth birthday).

Joan of Arc statue in the St. Louis Cathedral, NOLA

Joan of Arc statue in the St. Louis Cathedral, NOLA

So why talk about a Catholic saint on a Pagan blog?

Joan of Arc has always fascinated me. Unlike many other feminist icons, it’s impossible to rewrite Joan of Arc as anything other than Catholic. And unlike many other religious icons, we have  many primary sources available to us to tell us the details about her life and death. But what I find the most fascinating about her is the fact that her faith was what allowed her to do the things she did. She was a Believer. At the end of the day, it didn’t really matter what religion she was practicing, or of what entities she was having visions. She did what most Pagans hope to be able to do: She used her visions and discussions with the divine to help her change the world.

Think about it: an illiterate 16 year old girl convinced a King and his veteran generals to allow her to lead their army against an enemy they had been fighting for over ninety years, in a time when women were not allowed to be part of martial life at all. All of this under the religious auspices of a faith that gives very little power to women, even today. And unlike many powerful women of that era, she was not burned at the stake because she was accused of withcraft, but because she was accused of Heresy.

One of the most powerful things I’ve seen done by Priests and Priestesses is the Drawing Down. Invocation of a God or Goddess is an intense experience. When my partner draws down our patron God, his eyes change color, he smells different, and it’s obvious that he is no longer “at home”. This is one of the penultimate tasks of (at least Wiccan) Priests and Priestesses. As a Wiccan, I get to talk directly to my Gods, and this is one of the major things that separate us from other religions. This is, of course, not the only way, and certainly not the easiest, but it is a major part of the spiritual experience of being Wiccan.

Jason Mankey wrote a great blog with his own experiences about this here. He says in the blog:

While drawing down the moon is practically the most awesome think I can conceive of, it’s often absent from a lot of Modern Pagan Ritual. There are certainly groups who still make it a central part of their rites, but that seems more like the exception these days. There are a lot of reasons for this. Drawing down the moon is hard work, a lot of people aren’t ready to do it, and it’s not something you generally see at (open) large rituals. It’s also such an overwhelming experience for everyone involved (Priestess and circle-mates) that it’s generally not a good idea to do in certain (most) circumstances. By its very nature it’s something that requires a well trained clergy.

This is is one of the “secrets” of Wicca that will be lost if we continue to “learn” Wicca from books. This is something a book just can’t really teach you and it is definitely not something I recommend you try if you haven’t had years of training. I’ve only started to learn the very basics of what leads up to this and it is not the sort of work you do lightly.

While Joan of Arc may not have been Drawing Down the way Pagans, do, she was certainly having her own direct experience with deity through her religious tenants. I think anyone who can do this is pretty amazing. And the fact that her story has stood up to the test of history, and is still very present today, is a pretty powerful message about the the need for people who can speak directly to the divine and who can take the message they hear with them out into the world. In this modern era of science and technology, the divine is still with us, and people like Joan of Arc and our priests and priestesses help remind us of our connection to it. I’m glad that I live in a city that celebrates her.

Here are a few pictures from the parade:

Warrior Joan

Warrior Joan

St. Joan and Queen Yolande

St. Joan and Queen Yolande

Joanie on a Poney

Joanie on a Poney

One of the Saints who visited Joan.

One of the Saints who visited Joan.

The Wheel of Torture

The Wheel

Random Dragon

There were many people who carried banners with actual quotes from Joan of Arc

There were many people who carried banners with quotes from Joan of Arc, she said this right before they burned her at the stake.

Angels

Angels

Founder of the parade

Founder of the parade

Random Passerbye

Random Passerby

At the end of the parade, candles lit in front of the cathedral doors after they blessed St. Joan's sword

At the end of the parade, candles lit in front of the cathedral doors after they blessed St. Joan’s sword and moved on down to Chartres to get to the famous statue.