Beauty

Today my friend Lily White Lefevre sent me this blog post about making life more beautiful instead of trying to make it better. In it, the author says:

“Beautiful is the stuff that reaches right in, puts electrical paddles on our heart, and shocks us back to life. It’s the stuff that wakes us up. It’s the stuff that makes us good-ache, like easing off stiff shoes after hours on our feet. It’s the stuff that quenches.

Beautiful is a million little moments.”

And for me, that’s what Wicca is. In the midst of hardship, life, frustration, anger, grief and anxiety, Wicca is a way for me to make the world around me a little more beautiful.

In college, I had some serious medical issues and had a few terrible years. I had given up on religion, because I couldn’t find anything in Christianity that called to me. The church was an ugly place in the midst of an already terrible world. Life was bleak and there was no joy to be found. When I realized I needed spirituality in my life to balance out my physical and mental space and sought out new ways to find it, the world changed for me. Beauty came back to me. What had been a bleak, depressing time in my life was transformed. Magic, ritual, acknowledging the gods and spirits in the world around me, allowed me to see my life differently. The relationships I built with the people around me changed as well. Art, music, creativity all came back to me.

This is what I try to explain to my students. No matter what is going on in the world around you, you have the power to create something different, to create beauty to fill that void. When I raise energy for the gods, I do it out of love and respect and to make sure that the beauty in their worship continues, but also for the joy it brings me. Ritual is a dance of balance that creates beauty, grounded purpose and relief from the daily grind. Even when I practice working rituals, I come out of it feeling centered and lighter than when I went in: “For mine is the ecstasy of the spirit and mine also is joy on earth.”

It is so easy to give up on beauty. We see it as being a perk, something that is unnecessary and that can easily be set aside. It is something so easily lost in the midst of everything else. But beauty brings things to our lives that better never can. It is not a hardship, it is not something I have to force. In a world where I have to do things that I don’t want to, Wicca is beauty and I can’t imagine a life without it.

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Mari is a goddess that always brings me joy! Painting by and copyrighted by my partner.

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Shrines

Over the years I’ve had a lot of questions about the differences between altars and shrines. I have also been asked about how to create a shrine.

An altar is a working space for doing ritual and magic.

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Working altar

A shrine is static space devoted to a particular deity or purpose.

In my home I have one altar and I have many shrines.

Caring and feeding shrines takes devotion and effort. I wouldn’t recommend setting up a shrine and then ignoring it.

When I set up a shrine I constantly leave offerings, stop for prayer and meditation, and I am constantly “building” on it. Whenever I find something that I think is appropriate for the shrine, I rearrange and add to what is already there.

Shrines are a satisfying way of doing daily devotion and are good reminders for daily practice.

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A public shrine set up outside of local restaurant, Yuki.

Shrines can be anywhere, but many people have a hard time making a space or feel that they don’t have a “good” space for a shrine. Ive had a lot of students complain about having shrines on top of their dressers or bookshelves. They feel like the spaces aren’t respectful enough and the space itself is inconvenient, or that it’s too obvious when those who may not know about their spirituality are present. Also, in such daily space, things can get knocked over or touched more easily.

So I decided to get crafty for Yule this year. I made several close friends shrines for their personal practices.

I bought wooden crates from Michaels and painted, glued and cobbled together small shrines that can be hung on the wall or sat on a flat surface. They weren’t very big, about 10×11 or 16×8. I also bought small journals, votive candle holders and small glass plates to put inside each one. For one I added a small iron cauldron. For one person, I also found a necklace created by another seller on Etsy that was created for the goddess she works with.

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You know you’re a witch when…

I personalized each one for the person it was meant for, and made sure there was still plenty of space for the shrine to “grow.”. They were fun to do and were not hard to create. I felt like I was able to put a lot of thought, creativity and love into each one.

My craft skills are fairly basic and so I thought this might be helpful for the people who have asked me about shrines over the years. If you don’t have a good space for a shrine, this was a pretty straightforward way to make one that can easily be hung up away from daily life. I used glass, metal and mosaic glue (which cost me $7 from Michaels as well) for the heavy duty gluing. They all turned out to be incredibly sturdy, so they should last usual wear and tear really well.

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If you’re interested in one, let me know! I’m happy to make more. 🙂

New Seekers – Where Do I Start?

Recently I’ve received a lot of emails from people seeking advice on how to get started in Paganism. They have no idea what questions to ask, or what to tell me so that I might best advise them on what groups to seek out or what resources they should start with.

One of the ethics of Paganism is taking responsibility for yourself. It’s one of the things that makes us very different than Abrahamic religions. As a seeker, you are expected to do a bit of research into what it is you’re seeking. As a Priestess giving advice based on my years of being around the Pagan community, and practicing both eclectic Paganism and traditional Wicca, it’s difficult for me to advise someone unless they give me a few clues about what they are looking for.

If you’re a new seeker to the Pagan path and you want to reach out to someone for help, here are some things you should ask yourself before making contact:

Are you a spiritual Pagan? Or a magical Pagan? Or both?

What gods and goddesses do you worship? Are you interested in a particular culture of Paganism? This will quickly narrow down who you approach about Paganism.

What is the difference between “Wiccan” and “Pagan.” What other Pagan paths are there out there?

Do you understand what initiations is? Do you want to take a traditional initiation? Why or why not? If you don’t know what initiation is, this is something you should research.

Do you want formal training? How involved do you wish to be with  a group coven? Do you want to become a priest or priestess of the Craft, or simply attend rituals and events to seek the company of other Pagans?

Do some basic research. Its not hard, and while I don’t recommend the internet for serious study, there are plenty of resources out there that give you a basic overview of the modern Craft community in whatever area you are living. Here is my blog on information and resources for new Pagans.

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Once you have thought about these things, here is the type of email you could send to someone:

Dear SO and SO,

I came across your contact on [insert website or contact here.]

I am interested in such and such path and I think you could help answer some of my questions.

[List questions here. Some examples are ]-

What do I need to get started?

Are there any groups that you recommend?

I might be interested in joining your group? How can I do that? Do you have a formal intake process, pr are you a casual group?

Do you accept students? What does training with your group entail?

What books do you recommend?

Are there other groups in the area that might help me? Or suit my particular needs?

Thank you, sincerely,

New Seeker

And remember, whoever you email is under no obligation to respond, so if they do, remember to say thank you! They may or may not be able to help you, but make sure you let them know that you appreciate the fact that they took the time to give you any answer or advice. I see an important aspect of my Priestesshood as being someone that can give you the information to get you to the right Pagan path. I never mind if a stranger approaches me for that sort of advise, but I’m always really bothered when I don’t even get a quick “hey, thanks for the info!” Common courtesy never hurts anybody. “Please” and “Thank You” really are magical words.

Pysch Test or “Oh, The Bear!”

One of my students is taking a psych class. Tonight she decided to try one of her classes’ psychological tests on us, to somewhat hilarious results.

Proving perhaps that when you ask witches these type of questions, our inner mythology comes to the forefront and can’t be ignored.

The Test

You are walking in the woods:

1.Who are you walking with?

My answer – By myself.

My partner’s answer – With a bear… and Lauren (me).

2. You come to a clearing in the woods and there is an animal. What animal do you see?

My answer – A deer.

My partner’s answer – An elk.

3. How do you interact with that animal?

My answer – I observe and nothing else.

My partner’s answer – Lauren and I watch with glee as the bear eats the elk.

4. You see a dream house in front of you, how big is the house?

My answer – A witches’ cottage

My partner’s answer – A one story house made of candy

5. What do you see around the house? Is there a fence?

My answer – The house is on chicken legs and there is a fence of flaming skulls.

My partner’s answer – There are candy canes and a fence of ginger bread men

linnunjalka-talo6. You walk inside the house and you see a dining table. What’s on the table?

My answer – Nothing

My partner’s answer – Pie

7. You walk outside, there is a cup on the ground. What is the cup made of?

My answer – A golden, jeweled chalice

My partner’s answer – Wood

8. What do you do with the cup?

My answer – I leave it alone.

My partner’s answer – Give it to the bear.

9. You walk further away from the house and you come to a body of water. What body of water do you see?

My answer – A clogged (with vegetation) pond

My partner’s answer – The Western Ocean

10. How do you get across the body of water to get to the other side.

My answer – A rowboat

My partner’s answer – A magical, white horse

The explanation for all of these are:

The answer to question number 1 is the most important person in your life. The size of the animal is representative of the size of your problems. How aggressively you interact with the animal is how you deal with your problems. How large the house is, is how big your ambition is to solve your problems. How enclosed your house is shows how protective of yourself you are and how welcoming you are of others. The amount of things on the table is proportionate to how happy you are. The durability of the material that makes up the cup you see is your perceived durability of your relationship with the person from question number 1. Who you give the cup to is how you treat the person from question number 1. The size of the body of water shows how passionate your desires are and how wet you get while you cross the body of water shows how engulfed you are in those desires.

So for a normal person, my answers would reflect that I am the most important person in my life (selfish bitch that I am!), my problems are normal sized and I have no desire to solve them. According to the size of my house, I have few problems, but am super protective of myself. The clear table symbolizes that I am not happy and with the cup, I am very invested in the durability of myself and obviously care only for myself. My body of water is a clogged pond (my student is now very worried about my clogged pond!) means that I am not passionate and I didn’t get wet, so obviously I am not engulfed in any desires. In normal society, I am a weird, unkind, freak of nature, devoid of desire.

My partner on the other hand loves the bear more than he loves me (though he did include me and while we can get into who I think the bear represents, I will leave that to your imagination). His problems are a little larger than mine, but he attacks them viciously with another person (again, that bear!). His candy cottage is one story, so again, fewer problems (HAHAHA) and his table has a pie on it, showing that he is welcoming and willing to share his bounty. My partner’s cup was made of wood, a natural and organic material that is warm and inviting. He gave his cup to the bear, showing that he cares for the bear’s role in his life (oh that bear!). He approached an ocean, showing that he is vastly passionate, though he didn’t get wet either, riding his magical horse across the waves, so obviously, from the normal perspective, is not engulfed in those desires.

But for me, these questions were more of a walk through my astral temple. The same for my partner. We are both active, practicing, witches.

As soon as you tell me that I am walking through a forest, I enter a ritual mindset. This is immediately no random mental exercise.

My astral temple is a forest path, I walk that path alone until I meet deity (in my case, usually my patron god who appears to me as a deer). The house is obviously the house of the witch and when I think about the witches’ house in the woods, I am always happy when I think of Baba Yaga’s house on chicken legs. And if the house belongs to Baba Yaga, obviously there is a fence of flaming skulls around it! The table is clear, because the witch doesn’t want to scare away her visitors and you are never sure what you might find there. Obviously the cup, just left carelessly outside of the witches’ house is magical in nature and should be left alone. A clogged pond is something that you might find in the forest and  is the type of pond I grew up in (full of turtles and muskrats and other small creatures). Rowboats are again, something I grew up with.

I won’t take you through my partner’s magical thinking, it might make your head hurt. (But Oh the Bear…!)

The Bear Wife by my partner...Oh the Bear!

The Bear Wife by my partner, acrylic on canvas…Oh the Bear! (Once again a painting based on Sami folklore. In the mythology of the Sami and other members of their language group, such as the Mansi and Khanty peoples of Russia, there is a creation myth of a human woman who marries a bear. The bear is usually a cosmic creature, or is born of the Goddess Mielikki as the earth is created. This union of human and cosmic bear creates a specific tribe, or in some tellings, all people. )

For those of us who have been in Circle and who have done astral temple work, the answers to these become very different. To many “normal” people, the forest is a scary place. For me, as a witch, the forest is liminal space where initiation and other magical moments happen. The witch lives in the cottage in the woods and mythology comes alive. When I walk through the forest and interact with animals and objects, fairy tales and the lessons they teach take precedence. I don’t think tests like these are meant for people like me. I view the world very differently.

Being a witch is more than simply cackling and potions and spells…it is a completely different world view from everyone around you. There is an old Witch saying: “Witches may live among people, but they are never one of them.”

Personally I’ll take my weird, twisted world view. My clogged pond is very comforting and not representative of my desires and passions. I have immense passion and I dearly love both my partner and other people in my life (including, perhaps, the bear). I have huge problems, but I will always take a practical approach and won’t let them overwhelm me. The witch lurks in the woods and she might eat you, but she might also invite you in and help you. The gods walk with me and I commune with them. The woods are the Underworld and I feel comfortable there. In my astral temple, things appear with purpose and sometimes need to be left alone. I know my lore and mythology and, unlike many others, I know better than to touch and taste.

And while you contemplate these heavy issues, eat some delicious Cuban White Chili (which my student made for us!)

Cuban White Chili

Ingredients:

1 package, boneless, skinless chicken breasts

few pinches of salt

olive oil

2 onions

4 cloves of garlic

2 pablano peppers

3-4 tomatillos

3 cans Northern White Beans

Chicken Stock

1 Jalapeno

lots of cilantro

2 cans Rotel tomatoes and green chiles

cumin (enough)

1 lime

1 avocado

1 Bag of Shredded Mild Cheddar

Sour Cream

Recipe:

Dice garlic finely and dust lightly with salt. Dice onions. Add onions and salted garlic to skillet with 2 or 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Brown onions and garlic.

While onions and garlic are cooking, cube chicken and brown in a large pot, also in olive oil.

To onions and garlic, add all cans of rotel. Dice tomatillos and jalapenos, add to onion and rotel mixture.

To chicken, add chicken stock (as much as you like, though definitely enough for it to be a soup).

Once onion mixture is bubbling, add to chicken. Add all cans of beans to pot. Toast pablano peppers directly on flame of stove and then peel (to properly roast and peel pablanos, see this video). Dice, add to pot. Add handful of cilantro and enough cumin to taste, simmer for 30 minutes. Add another handful of cilantro and add more cumin if desired.

Simmer for at least another hour, serve on top of shredded cheese, with sour cream, uncooked cilantro, sliced avocado and lime juice as desired.

Enjoy!

Peppers roasting merrily on my stove top!

Peppers roasting merrily on my stove top!

Blessed Samhain!

Today of course starts one of my busiest weekends of the year!

It might be a little cliche, but Samhain is my favorite sabbat and I go out and participate in numerous Halloween activities around the city.

This year, for our costume day at work, I decided to go with Miss Argentina from the movie Beetlejuice. Miss Argentina is literally on screen for about 10 seconds, but she has always been one of my favorites.

Miss Argentina is the receptionist in the Underworld. I think that would be an amazing job to have!

Hades…Arawn…any Underworld Gods/Goddesses out there…I have excellent filing and customer service skills! (Or maybe I shouldn’t tempt that one…?)

Blessed Samhain All!

Miss Argentina

Miss Argentina

Magical Apples

Fall and is definitely a season of apples! At least in North America. The apple dominates many seasonal activities, foods and symbolism. I asked my students to research Samhain traditions throughout Europe (Samhain is of course inherently Celtic, but many other European cultures see the Fall as a time to celebrate the reaping of the harvest and death as Fall fades into Winter) and one of my students found a tradition in which people bury apples to feed their ancestors, which inspired this post.

The tale of  the serpent and the apple is one that probably almost every person in Western culture is familiar with. The apple, the forbidden fruit, is the symbol of Eve’s disobedience and in many ways, women’s power over themselves, their bodies and their choices. It is also a reminder that Eve was not Adam’s first wife. Lilith, the snake, she who would not be ignored, is one woman that Western culture often conveniently likes to overlook. The apple represents knowledge and the ability to reason, and therefore make our own choices and not simply follow the instructions of an uncaring deity, the way that Lilith did before she was cast from the Garden.

William Blake, The Temptation and Fall of Eve, 1808 (illustration of Milton's Paradise Lost)

William Blake, The Temptation and Fall of Eve, 1808 (illustration of Milton’s Paradise Lost)

Of course, Lilith is a much older deity than the one dimensional character she plays in the Old Testament. Lilith is remembered originally from the Epic of Gilgamesh, a text that was written probably around 1800 years before Genesis. Lilith sits in the Huluppu tree that Inanna has planted in order to use to build a new throne. Inanna is the goddess of creation and she is afraid of Lilith, who represents the chaos of the primordial world. Inanna asks Gilgamesh to rid the tree of Lilith’s presence, in order for Inanna to establish her order over Lilith’s chaos. Of course the tree, just like the tree in Genesis, is the World Tree or the Tree of Knowledge, and Lilith is the feminine spirit that inhabits the tree. In Genesis, Jehovah wants an inherently masculine world and Adam promises not to eat the fruit of the tree, which is feminine in nature. Eve never makes that promise and when the serpent tells her to eat the fruit, she has no qualms about doing so. Of course, Jehovah cannot stand to have female energy dominate his new world and casts both Adam and Eve out in order to contain Eve’s possible knowledge.

Lilith is known as the mother of demons; motherhood here seems to be the ultimate evil. When Eve was cast from the Garden, she is forced to endure pain in childbirth. To this day, menstruation is seen as unclean throughout many cultures and in those cultures, being male is the only way to be truly pure.

Another story of the apple representing knowledge and discord is the infamous Apple of Discord thrown by Eris, eventually causing the Trojan War, a war that transitioned the world from the age of myth and heroes to the age of history and reason. Again, women are seen as being at the cause of the issue of the apple and of the war itself. Where did this apple come from? It was the apple that Hippomenes used to distract Atalanta from beating him, apples he got from Golden Aphrodite, the goddess of love, thus forcing Atalanta to marry and become a mother.

Do we see a common theme in all of these apple stories?

In North mythology, Idunn guarded the golden apples which kept the Aesir young. When she was kidnapped for her golden apples by a frost giant, Loki had to rescue her to ensure that the Aesir wouldn’t age. The apple is a symbol of rebirth and beauty, just as in the other myths already discussed.

Arthur Rackham's

Arthur Rackham’s “Freya”

Of course, there is also Avalon, the Isle of Apples, the place where Excalibur is forged and that is famous for mystical, magical practices. Both Morgana Le Fey and Nimue are associated with Avalon and apples. Arthur is taken to Avalon in order to recover from wounds received during the Battle of Camlann, the battle where he fought Mordred and lost.

In later fairy tales, the apple shows up over and over as well. The most famous instance is perhaps the apple in the story of Snow White. Unlike the Disneyfied version of Snow White, the Witch Queen disguised as an old beggar woman first tempts Snow White with golden combs and a beautiful corset. The combs are poisoned and when they are removed from her scalp, Snow White wakes up. When the Dwarves cut the corset off Snow White, she is able to breathe again and is once more OK. But with the apple…the apple is stuck in her throat and this time the Dwarves can’t understand what is wrong and can do nothing but put her in the famous glass coffin. Unlike in most modern versions, it is not a kiss from the Prince that awakes Snow White, it is because when the Prince comes and sees Snow White, he demand that the Dwarves allow him to take the beautiful woman in the glass coffin home with him. In the course of carrying it, the coffin is dropped, jolting the apple out of Snow White’s throat. It is only through the Witch Queen’s careful initiation that Snow White gains the knowledge she needs to claim her rightful place in the adult world and become a wife and mother.

Apples are inherently important throughout western myth. And the apple and the witch figure often go hand in hand.

In Gardnerian Wicca, its a sacred act to slice an apple down the center in order to see the pentacle inside.

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Photo by Lauren DeVoe

Apples are often used in divination and love spells. If you can peel an apple without breaking the peel and then toss the full peel over your shoulder, the peel should form the initials of your true love’s name.

CIder is of course the base of Wassail and is found as a part of ritual throughout the year.

The wood is used for many different magical purposes as well. Many shipbuilders traditionally wouldn’t use apple wood to build ships, because apple wood was used to build coffins, again helping people transition to the Underworld.

The apple is the foundation of so much of our myth and ritual; take the time this Samhain to enjoy the apple season. Go to an orchard and pick apples with your friends and loved ones. Cut an apple open on the full moon and thank the Goddess for another year. Bury apples so that the dead have something to eat. We often take the apple for granted and forget its many magical uses. When you eat an apple, you are eating the fruit of knowledge and are acknowledging the power of the sacred feminine and at the end of the day, just like the sexuality of women, the apple is simply a delicious fruit that should always be savored.

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Photo by KK at Brushwood, 2012

Mabon is Upon Us

Mabon, or the Fall Equinox is today. While I always remind my students that the eight sabbats that Wiccans celebrate in the modern world are estimated and agreed upon dates for the agricultural and hunting cycle of the year, I usually try to pay attention to true solstice and equinox moments.

The last few days I have been wired and restless. For the first time in over a week, I fell asleep and slept deeply all night. Waking up this morning, I realized that the equinox had finally hit and some of that shifting energy had finally settled down upon us.

I’ve had a hard time with Mabon this year. While its a time of bounty and rejoicing, it is also a time of sacrifice. This Mabon feels like the end of an important cycle in my own life and I have been hoping that all of my hard work is about to come to fruition. I have been struggling with what to say, but luckily enough a fellow priestess of the tradition I work in, Blue Star, said it beautifully so that I don’t have to. I thought I would share her words and wisdom here, because it touched me deeply and I think it is the type of thing to pass on and carry with you throughout the rest of the dark time of the year.

The Gods have been generous to me in myriad ways, not all of which feel particularly comfortable in the moment. The weeks between the Harvest and New Year are a time of celebrating bounty, but that bounty also requires a reaping. And with a reaping can come a mourning, of sorts, for the things that once were, or could have been but never really bloomed, or are revealed to have grown into something other than what one thought, or intended, or held out hope for, no longer to be consumed in good health or consciousness.

So I meet this holiday in appreciation for the experiences that have nourished me throughout the past year, some anticipated and some pleasantly unexpected. And I tip a nod of farewell to those which have not. Some with sadness, because truth, and some with relief, because honesty.

Regardless, I lay myself before the foot of the Gods in my supplication that l continue to grow to achieve my greatest and most nourished potential with the people and places and experiences that support and contribute to this ultimate end. Which will, in turn, mean that I am divinely positioned to contribute to the greatest and most nourished potential of those people and places and experiences where I am most meant to serve.

You reap the grain. Some makes your bread. Some is released to the wind to grow wherever and feed whomever it’s best meant for.

Blessed Mabon

-the ever beautiful and effervescent Tegan Ashton Cohan