Yesterday morning I received the sad news that Ross Heaven, Shaman and author had sadly and unexpectedly passed away.
I never managed to meet Ross in person but he was kind enough to write a review of my book ‘Web of Life’ despite having no idea who I was and when I decided to do the distance work based on his excellent book ‘Medicine for the Soul’ he proved himself to be the most supportive teacher, guiding, challenging and generous in the sharing of his own experiences.
If you have never read any of Ross’ books you are missing a real treat. His works are wide ranging in their themes from his own early training with Adam, the Sin Eater he knew as a child in Wales in ‘The Sin Eater’s Last Confessions’, his own journey and changing relationships in ‘Drinking the Four Winds’, and his interest in working with…
This recently released book of three poems includes notes and commentary by Verlyn Flieger and Christopher Tolkien. Edited by Dr Flieger (Department of English / University of Maryland), this small volume will not only appeal to Tolkien enthusiasts, but also to students of Celtic myths and legends. From Tolkien’s middle period, these poems are the culmination of what appears to be a year (1929-1930) of immersing himself in Breton languages and folklore.
In Britain’s land beyond the seas
the wind blows ever through the trees;
in Britain’s land beyond the waves
are strong shores and strong caves.
J.R.R Tolkien, “The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun,” lines 1-4
“The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun,” the longest poem from which the book is titled, was finished by Tolkien in 1930 and was published in 1945 in The Welsh Review. It is a re-working of other earlier authors’ published material into octosyllabic couplet (lai) form. Unused and revised sections are reviewed by the editor giving a glimpse into Tolkien’s creative process. Here a childless husband seeks fertility help from a “witch” (later called “Corrigan”) who is found sitting beside “the fountain of the fay, before a cave.” Tragedy then ensues.
‘Mary on earth, why dost thou weep?’
‘My little child I could not keep:
A corrigan stole him in his sleep,
And I must weep.
J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Corrigan,” lines 1-4
The two other poems, “The Corrigan,” and “The Corrigan II,” are also retellings by Tolkien. They involve motifs and themes found in other Celtic traditions. For example, “The Corrigan,” entails a human baby that is replaced by a fairy changeling, and “The Corrigan II,” concerns an attempted seduction of a human man by a fairy woman. Other elements are specifically Bretonic. For instance, “The Corrigan” is a Breton word that means “fairy,” with a unique history of connotations differing from other Celtic lands.
Fans of The Lord of the Rings will enjoy discovering how the Corrigan “foreshadows the greatest and best-known of Tolkien’s magical, mysterious, ladies of the forest…Galadriel.” (xvi).
There has been some scholarship of late examining how, and to what degree, Tolkien might be considered a Pagan author (E.g., Dr Ronald Hutton’s paper, “The Pagan Tolkien” in the Tolkien 2005 Proceedings, published in 2008 by The Tolkien Society.” The folkloric clashes between Christianity and Paganism are firmly maintained in these retellings. However, it is possible nevertheless to bring a psychoanalytic lens to Tolkien’s displayed attitude in these poems and view it as defensive. This would betray a fascination with the pagan material that he could not relinquish in his mind. The discipline of applied psychoanalysis (which interprets culture) may thus perhaps further this vein of scholarly inquiry.
A 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…
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…
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.
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.
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.