Review: A Dance with Hermes by Lindsay Clarke

Signposts in the Mist

A Dance with HermesA Dance with Hermes is the first full poetry collection by the British novelist Lindsay Clarke. Serving as a messenger for Hermes, the winged-footed messenger god of ancient Greece, Clarke brings his myths to life in the twenty-first century in this series of masterfully crafted verses.

In his introduction, ‘A Note at the Threshold’, Clarke writes about his creative process. As a poet and polytheist I found this fascinating. The book began life as a ‘hermaion’: a ‘windfall’ or ‘god-send’ beginning with a single poem called ‘Koinos Hermes’ based on the presiding presence of Hermes in the life of his friend, John Moat. I was fascinated by this sense of gifting.

Most of the poems consist of four quatrains steering between ‘half-rhymes to suggest the elusive nature of the god’ and ‘full rhymes echoing on his sudden presence.’ Cleverly they shift between ABAB and ABBA rhymes echoing the dancing beat…

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New books for Druids

New Books for Pagans, reviewed.

Druid Life

Australian Druidry, by Julie Brett comes out this month, while Reclaiming Civilization by Brendan Myers has just been released. Both titles are highly pertinent to anyone following the Druid path and as I’ve read both I thought I’d review them together.

Brendan Myers is a philosopher and academic with a really accessible writing style. I’ve been following his work for a long time. In this most recent book he explores the concept of civilization. Inevitably this means a fair bit of looking at the ideas of our ancient Pagan ancestors. It also means exploring what people think civilization is, and flagging up all the things that aren’t hard wired, or inevitable, and could in fact be changed. For anyone hankering after a different sort of society, this is an uplifting book, and there’s enough in it about how we live as individuals to help any one of us, alone, to…

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Making a Minoan Altar

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One of the great things about Modern Minoan Paganism is that it isn’t a rigid path, but a growing tradition with a broad scope that allows each person to find their own right relationship with the gods and goddesses of ancient Crete.

But that can be a problem, too, because there aren’t pre-set rules for things like how to set up your altar.

My Pagan training began with Wicca, which has clear rules for choosing and organizing the items that go on an altar, even down to what you do at different points on the Wheel of the Year. So how do you set up a Minoan altar if there aren’t any rules? There may not be rigid rules, but there are guidelines that can help you create an altar that’s just right for you. (That’s my Minoan altar up top.)

My book Labrys and Horns has details about setting up your sacred space, consecrating your altar, and calling the deities. But there are some basics that will get you started, and some things you ought to know that are different from other types of modern Paganism.

First of all, we have no evidence that the Minoans used the classical (Hellenic) four-element system of fire, air, water, and earth. That appears to have been created much later than Minoan times (the Hellenic Greeks flourished centuries after the fall of the Minoan cities). But the Minoans did pay special attention to the cardinal directions (north, south, east, west) as well as the places along the horizon where the Sun, Moon, and certain stars rose at different times of the year. These directions were important enough to the Minoans that they oriented their temples, peak sanctuaries, and tombs toward them. So you could “frame” your altar with small objects that are located toward the cardinal directions, if that appeals to you.

Then there are the gods and goddesses. Which one or ones does your altar honor? Will that change over the course of the year? Where will you start? What objects will you use to represent or honor them?

My altar, pictured above, currently includes the Melissae, Amalthea, and Ariadne. These three “play well together” so I can put them together on the same altar without a problem. I’ve found that’s not the case for Dionysus; he tends to want a dedicated altar space all his own (which he has elsewhere in my house). So first you need to decide who the focal point will be. Then, if you want to include more than one deity, check (via meditation or your other preferred method) to make sure that will work. The only surefire “multi-altar” I know of is one that honors the Minoan pantheon as a whole, without focusing on any specific deity. If you want to honor particular gods and/or goddesses, please be sure to ask them how they would like to be represented and whether they’re OK with being included alongside others on your altar.

Once you have all the items arranged, you’ll want to consecrate your altar and begin using it: making offerings, meditating and praying in front of it, maybe even performing rituals if that’s your thing.

An altar is a wonderful thing. It’s a physical anchor for spiritual practice, a focal point that reminds us of our priorities every time we pass by it. It can be as simple as a few items on a bookshelf (I have several of those – my non-Pagan friends think I have interesting knick-knacks!) or as fancy as a whole room dedicated to your path.

Whatever your altar looks like, however it’s arranged, make sure it works for you and the gods with whom you’re building a relationship. Because more than anything, an altar is the meeting place between you and the divine.

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.

Dying-and-reborn gods, or are they?

Iridescent Dionysus by Laura Perry
Iridescent Dionysus by Laura Perry

Dying-and-reborn gods are a fixture in modern Pagan practice, embodying the cycles of life, death, and rebirth. Right now it’s Lammastide and many of us who celebrate this First Harvest in the modern eight-fold wheel of the year are symbolically sacrificing a grain god in our rituals, fully expecting that he’ll rise again with the springtime sprouting of next year’s crop.

That’s Dionysus up top of this post, another so-called dying-and-reborn god (DRG for short). Among other things, he’s the embodiment of the vine and its fruit, so he “dies” at the grape harvest each year (the Feast of Grapes as celebrated in Modern Minoan Paganism) and is reborn… well, it’s complicated, since Minoan religion added layer upon layer for centuries, just like the ancient Egyptians did. In Modern Minoan Paganism we celebrate his birth at the Winter Solstice but we also recognize his renewal with the sprouting of the first leaves on the grapevines in the spring.

The thing is, Dionysus is a god. Gods aren’t mortal so they can’t actually die.

You may have heard the quote from Epimenides, the semi-mythical Cretan philosopher-poet who supposedly lived during the 6th or 7th century BCE: “All Cretans are liars.” It’s referenced in the Christian Bible as a paradox (Epimenides is a Cretan and he said all Cretans are liars, so how can what he said be either true or false?) and that’s where a lot of people have heard it from, though it’s apparent that the original statement wasn’t intended as a paradox but a simple statement.

But here’s the thing: Epimenides is intricately linked with “Cretan Zeus” (that would be the Minoan Dionysus, the way the Hellenic Greeks referenced him). He supposedly became a prophet/oracle after sleeping in Rhea’s cave on Mt. Ida, the cave where Dionysus is born every Midwinter (well, one of them anyway!). This is a tidbit of Good Stuff that managed to make it down through the centuries, possibly a shadow of the practices that people undertook during Minoan times at the cave shrines on the island.

So why did Epimenides say all Cretans are liars? Because by his time (almost a millennium after the fall of the Minoan cities) the myths and stories about Dionysus and the rest of the Minoan pantheon had degenerated to the point that people took it literally when the story said Dionysus died. They interpreted the remains of the cave shrine as his tomb.

But gods aren’t mortal. They can’t die.

In modern western society, we have an example of a DRG whose myth has been taken literally: Jesus Christ. But how is it that he can actually die? By becoming mortal. That’s a special consideration, one that’s been argued back and forth for centuries by all kinds of religious scholars, and one I don’t care to take on.

My point is this: Dionysus doesn’t become mortal. John Barleycorn doesn’t become mortal. They’re not human. They don’t actually die, though of course the crops that symbolize them do (and for that, I’m grateful).

The DRGs don’t die; they DESCEND. They go down to the Underworld, awaiting the right time to rise again and start the cycle anew.

We’re mortal. We actually die. Though some of us can travel to the Underworld via shamanic journeys without dying, we don’t take our bodies with us on that trip. So the closest we can come to understanding the divine cycle, the up-and-down, the growing-giving-releasing of the DRG is by equating it to what we ourselves undergo, what we understand: dying and being reincarnated.

So technically, the DRGs don’t die. They can’t, and they don’t need to. But to us, it looks very much like that’s exactly what they do. And that’s fine. We’re mortals, watching immortals do something that we can only understand in part; three-dimensional beings doing their best to interpret the actions of heaven-knows-how-many-dimensional beings.

But what we can see, the part we’re able to understand, has meaning for us. It’s a reminder that it’s not a straight line, but a circle, a spiral… and that’s a gift indeed.

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.

Dionysus: God of many brews

x wine drinker

Dionysus is a popular god, for obvious reasons. At first glance, his rites look an awful lot like wild parties. And it’s true, one of the things he’s really good at is breaking down barriers and societal conventions. But the purpose behind all that mayhem isn’t simply to have a good time. There’s meant to be spiritual growth involved, believe it or not.

Most people know Dionysus as the god of wine. He’s associated specifically with this beverage, which people have brewed for millennia, and his death is celebrated at the time of the grape harvest. Yes, he’s one of those so-called dying-and-reborn gods, though I think it’s more accurate to say he descends to the Underworld and then returns later on.

So why wine? The Minoans also brewed beer (the goddess Rhea is associated with grain) and mead (honey is the purview of the Melissae, the ancestral bee-goddesses). But Rhea and the Melissae link to grain and honey, not necessarily to the brewed beverages. And that’s a clue to Dionysus’ secrets: All the brewed drinks are ultimately his.

So yes, he’s a god of wine, but ultimately, he’s a god of fermentation. And that’s a kind of magic.

I’ve been brewing wine for more than 20 years, and the process never ceases to amaze me. Can you imagine what it must have felt like, tens of thousands of years ago, to be that first person whose bowl of juicy grapes or cup of barley gruel sat out a little too long and, instead of going bad, turned into a tasty fizzy drink that made you feel lightheaded? A drink that made it that much easier to reach a state of ecstasy in ritual. At a Pagan gathering, I once had a jug of apple cider turn into “apple champagne” all by itself, with no intervention from me. That was some awesome natural magic.

Fermentation changes one substance into another. It’s a kind of transformation, from an ordinary material (grapes, grain, honey) into a unique and special one. In a sense, it’s the earliest type of alchemy.

It’s transformation that Dionysus is all about: changing us from our ordinary selves into something greater, more expanded, more luminous. Pushing us outside our preconceived notions, outside society’s set of rules for how we should think, feel, and experience the universe. Fermenting us from grapes into wine.

May you become the very finest wine of all.

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.

A Review of Merlin: Once and Future Wizard by Elen Sentier

Reviewed by Frank Malone

Elen Sentier’s latest book continues the fabulous Pagan Portals series from Moon Books. These brief volumes constellate an author’s accumulated wisdom on a specific subject. From my perspective as a psychoanalyst, I had heretofore approached Merlin as an archetypal image of the Wise Old Man. Amongst other things, Sentier is trained in transpersonal psychotherapy. She has opened my eyes so that I can begin to see the depth and complexity of Merlin. Furthermore, Sentier teaches us that Merlin is available to us now for relationship.

To my surprise, Sentier shows us that Merlin is the spirit of the land of Britain – and Brittany to boot! She thus explains the many (apparently) contradictory places in Britain and the Continent associated with Merlin in the legends. As spirit, he is far older than the figures in the stories. Sentier takes us through the divers guises of Merlin in literature. This includes, inter alia, the Green Man. The author discusses the light that these incarnations shed on Merlin as spirit.

Sentier is also one of the awenyddion (Celtic shamans). I was fascinated to learn about the Celtic way of journeying to the Otherworld. The trance-induction is different from the auditory-driven induction used in core shamanism, which is my training and practice. The author draws contrast between these two shamanic approaches. Additionally, the Celtic journey process described is, as she observes, “far closer to what Jung calls ‘active imagination’. It was also interesting to read how she integrates shamanic knowledge with her practice of psychotherapy.

I was delighted and grateful for her chapter on Nimue/Vivian. This was the most satisfying treatment of the topic I have seen. I enjoyed as well the integrated biographical material woven throughout the book. I appreciate authors who can be genuine and not hide behind an intellectual defense. The book is also infused with her gentle good humour. Sentier’s book is fun and informative, and I shall keep it around to refer to for years to come.

More about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/pagan-portals-merlin

Minoan Leftovers: What should I do with those offerings?

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In Modern Minoan Paganism, as in many other modern Pagan traditions, we make offerings to the gods. This is a practice that connects us back through time with the Minoans and other ancient people. Offerings are a way to show our appreciation and thanks for the divine in our lives, a way to show our devotion. Most of the time, we make offerings to specific gods and goddesses, though it’s also possible to set out items on your altar to the divine in general, the entire Minoan Pantheon (perhaps as a thank-you for getting to “meet” them) or nature or Mother Earth.

Sometimes it’s as simple as a flower laid on the altar or a stick of incense lit with a silent “thank you.” Sometimes the offering is a ritual in itself, perhaps a libation of wine poured into a bowl or outdoors onto the ground. Often, offerings involve food or drink, just as they did in ancient times. But that leaves us with a question: What should we do with the leftovers when it’s time to clean off the altar?

Obviously, if you’ve poured some wine or milk onto the ground outside, there’s nothing left to clean up afterwards. That stick of incense? Just sweep up the ash and you’re done. Wilted flowers can go in the compost pile.

But what about leftover food? It seems a shame to waste food, especially in our bloated, “affluenza”-ridden modern world where we already waste so much of so many things.

Let me emphasize that we don’t honestly know what the Minoans did with the remains of offerings that had been set out in shrines and on altars, in other words, given to the gods. So we have to decide for ourselves what we’re comfortable doing in our own spiritual practice. There are a few options here.

One is simply to consider that the offering has been “served” to the god or goddess in much the same way you’d serve food to an honored guest who comes to your house for dinner. You wouldn’t take food off their plate and eat it yourself, would you?

In this case, you would leave the offering on the altar for however long feels right to you: overnight, a set number of days, until the next full moon, or some other span of time. Then you’d dispose of it in a respectful way, doing your best to honor the Earth and the resources that went into making that food. I garden so most of my food offerings end up in my compost pile: They go back to the Earth to make more food. I prefer not to set food outside for the wildlife to consume, simply because many human foods are harmful to wild animals. If I lived in the middle of a big city and didn’t have, say, a worm composter on my apartment balcony, I’d probably just put the remains in the trash.

But what if your offering is something much bigger? What if you’ve dedicated a whole meal to the Ancestors or Ariadne or Dionysus? To me, that’s kind of like having a dinner in honor of a special guest: You serve them their portion of the food and you (and everyone else who’s there) gets to eat the rest. In this case, I would dispose of the remains of their portion in one of the ways I listed above. This scenario is similar to the feasts in honor of the gods that many ancient cultures held. Often, the deity was assigned a specific portion of the main dish, which might have been an animal that was slaughtered in a sacred or ritual manner. The Minoans appear to have built special dining shrines just for this type of occasion.

There’s a third option for disposing of offerings, one that was common in ancient Egypt and that I’m sure the Minoans knew about: reversion of offerings. The process is simple: You set out the food and/or drink offering, give the gods some time to absorb the essence of it (they’re not physical beings so they’re not going to eat the physical food, right?). Then you remove the food from the altar and eat/drink it yourself so there’s no waste.

In ancient Egypt, there was a specific set of rituals for ensuring that the gods were satisfied before removing the offerings from the altar. It’s a good idea to do something like that, say a few words and really listen to make sure it’s OK to remove the offering before you do so.

There is, of course, a practical consideration for reversion of offerings as well. You don’t want to leave the food out long enough for it to spoil. Fresh fruit will last for days and still be safe to eat, and a loaf of bread might last a while as well, but you certainly don’t want to leave meat or most cooked foods out more than an hour or two, for safety.

I’ve only tried reversion of offerings a handful of times with the Minoan deities. In about half of the cases, I felt very strongly that I shouldn’t remove the offerings and eat the food myself, so I didn’t. To be honest, I’m not entirely comfortable with this practice, since it feels like taking back a gift, but that could simply be my modern mindset. If you’d like to give it a try, there is historical precedent. Do let me know how it goes if you head down this route.

 

Regardless of how you dispose of your offerings, I hope you make plenty of them. It’s frequent interaction that keeps our relationships with the gods alive. And that’s a good thing.

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.

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