MYTHS – STORIES THAT TEACH US HOW TO LIVE

Ancient cultures sought to understand their existence and explain their connection to the world through myths and rituals.

Myths are the body of stories and legends that a people perceive as being an integral part of their culture. Before the invention of writing, these stories and legends were handed down from generation to generation in the form of rituals and oral traditions. The reappearance of certain themes, time and again, in different mythologies, leads to the realization that these themes portray universal and eternal truths about mankind.

Myth basically serves four functions:

  1. The first is the mystical function – realizing what a wonder the universe is, and what a wonder you are, and experiencing awe before this mystery
  2. The second is a cosmological dimension, showing you what shape the universe is, but showing it in such a way that the mystery comes through.
  3. The third function is the sociological one – supporting and validating a certain social order.
  4. But there is a fourth function of myth, and that is the teaching function, illustrating how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances.” [1]

At their core, all myths exist to teach us. They teach us about ourselves and others, and they show us how to live our lives. Myths serve more than just the folkloric functions in society of “do this”, “don’t eat that”, “be careful when travelling there”, and so on; myths are the guidebooks for life itself, with all its beauty and mystery. Myths are the keys to understanding the whole of human experience.

Myths are not literal truths. Myths are not lies. Mythology is poetry: it is metaphorical. It is said that mythology is the penultimate truth – penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words; it is beyond words, beyond images, beyond music.  Mythology stretches the mind beyond that point, to what can be known but not told.

All cultures create ‘masks’, which are the names and images for the divine, and they serve as metaphors for an inexpressible transcendence, being beyond all being and the idea beyond all thought.

The idea of the divine as being something over and above the natural is a destructive idea. In the Middle Ages this was the idea that finally turned that world into something like a wasteland, a land where people were living inauthentic lives, never doing what they truly wanted to because supernatural laws required them to live as directed by the church. In a wasteland, people are fulfilling purposes that are not properly theirs but have been imposed upon them as inescapable laws.

This is destructive to the soul. The spirit is really the bouquet of life. It is not something breathed into life, it comes out of life. This is one of the glorious things about the mother-goddess religions, where the world is the body of the Goddess, divine in itself, and divinity isn’t something ruling over and above a fallen nature. The story of the fall in the Garden of Eden sees nature as corrupt, and that myth corrupts the whole world for us. Because nature is thought of as corrupt, every spontaneous act is sinful and must not be yielded to. You get a totally different civilization and a totally different way of living according to whether your myth presents nature as fallen or whether nature is in itself a manifestation of divinity, and the spirit is the revelation of the divinity that is inherent in nature.” [2]

Joseph Campbell, the great writer on mythology, said many times that a new global mythology was arising based on the concept of Gaia, the Earth Mother.

 Which brings us to the big question – who or what are the Gods? Are they just stories, the dreams of men, metaphors? Or do they exist?

There are hundreds of thousands of god and goddess names, some of whom were worshipped in Britain, many more that were not. We find that within a single pantheon that the names of the gods are not always consistent; some gods absorb the names, titles and attributes of another with the passing of the centuries. Mythologies evolve and change, are absorbed and assimilated into other cultures.

The question that every individual Pagan must resolve for themselves is does this mean we are to believe literally in all these differing deities? If we do, where do we choose a particular time in history to fix the names and attributes of the gods we chose to worship? To choose to be a Celt of 300 BC as opposed to a Celt of 100 AD, or a Viking of 50 BC as opposed to a Viking of 300 AD involves serious logical and spiritual dichotomies. Even if it is possible to make these decision, can we really enter into the ‘world view’ of an older culture without imposing our modern preconceptions on it?

In the Craft we are taught that “…beyond the two is the One, which we cannot name or limit, for the One is without limit, therefore we do give our worship unto the Lady and her Lord.”

This is far from being a belief in a supreme monotheistic god who is separate from his creation; it means that everything, even the gods and goddesses, are part of a single great whole, a manifestation of pure consciousness, Divine energy.

The Craft view is that in the process of manifesting, consciousness divides itself into two parts, God and Goddess, yang and yin, define it how you will, which, though seeming to be separate, cannot exist without one another, any more than a coin can have one side.  Only when they combine can action, movement and creation arise.

Through the splitting of the primordial principle at the beginning of creation, the duality within our lives came into being, together with a strong force that is constantly striving to re-unite with the other part.

In the Craft it is believed that the Divine Spirit is not separate from creation, it is creation. It is us, and everything else. There is no real difference between spirit and matter – gods, humans, and everything else are part of each other, part of the One.

The oldest Pagan gods were always embodiments of natural forces – vegetation, storm, sun, moon, sea, wind, sky, storm, thunder, fire, earth, water, rain, fertility, creation and destruction.  For me, these are facets of the Divine we can approach and work with. When you invoke the name of a deity, you are invoking a particular facet of the Cosmos. If you invoke the Norse god Thor, you are invoking an aspect of thunder, but this is not the same as invoking Taranis, the Celtic god of thunder, which has a somewhat different energy, while still embodying thunder. That doesn’t mean that the energies – or gods – are metaphorical, or products of the human mind, it just means their nature is beyond human understanding, and we work with what we can comprehend.

Myths are stories that give us clues to the nature of life, temporal and spiritual, manuals to the whole experience of ourselves and others. Used wisely, myths initiate the individual into the realities of his or her own psyche and become guides to spiritual enlightenment.

No matter the culture or tradition, the hero of every myth takes the same journey. Each hero departs, interacts with other archetypal beings and encounters difficulties and trials, completes his quest or fulfils his purpose (which is sometimes not to complete his quest) and returns, changed in some way. As King Arthur and his knights sat feasting, there appeared the mysterious Holy Grail in their midst. All the knights set out on the quest to find it. They had many adventures and many of them perished in the quest, until at last it was found by Galahad, the perfect knight.

The adventure can be one of inner exploration and spiritual seeking as well as some kind of high adventure. This mythic journey is present—and nearly identical—in many major religions. Buddha, Moses and Jesus, for instance, all embarked on spiritual quests, met with allies or enemies, were tested and each returned transformed. Prince Siddhartha Gautama at the age of twenty nine left his palace to meet his subjects. Despite his father’s efforts to hide from him the sick, aged and suffering, he saw a bent old man. When his charioteer explained to him that all people grew old, the prince went on further trips beyond the palace. On these he encountered a diseased man, a decaying corpse and an ascetic. These depressed him, and he initially strove to overcome aging, sickness, and death by living the life of an ascetic, then left the palace to live the life of a mendicant.  During this time, he was offered a throne, asked to be the spiritual heir of two yoga teachers but refused them all, still searching for enlightenment. He tried self-mortification and fasting, nearly starving himself to death until a village girl saved his life by feeding him.  After this he began to reconsider his path, and decided that this was not the way.  He realised that extreme asceticism did not work, and began to focus on meditation, discovering what Buddhists call the Middle Way, a path of moderation. Eventually, sitting under the Bodhi tree and after forty nine days of meditation, he achieved enlightenment.

Each of us has embarked on a journey, whether we like it or not – the journey of life. Powerful forces have made a gateway for each of us to be incarnated in this place and time. Myths are guides to how we live life, and whether we live life heroically is up to us.

If Frodo and Aragorn had decided just to stay in the pub, instead of returning the ring, it would have been a very short book in which evil prevailed. If Stephen Hawkins had just curled up in a corner when he was diagnosed with motor neuron disease instead of immersing himself in his work and living life as fully as he could, he probably would have died really quickly and we wouldn’t have A Brief History of Time and all his scientific discoveries.

Our names might not go down in history, but each of us is the hero of our own story. The life quest is different for each person. It might be a spiritual quest, as when Siddhartha Gautama left behind the life of a rich man and sought enlightenment.  For you, the quest might be to be a good healer, a wonderful parent, a skilled carpenter or blacksmith, an inspired musician, a poet, artist or spiritual initiate. Maybe the quest involves a few or even all of these.

So, are you the hero in your own life-quest, or are you playing the sidekick in everybody else’s story?  Do you act or just react to the people and situations around?

Usually, we don’t have a handle on is what our story is or we let other people tell us what our story should be. Basically, our story is whatever we believe about ourselves to be true. The way you tell yourself your own story can make you the eternal victim of childhood abuse, or can make you the hero who overcame it.  Myths can teach us how to live.

What myths—all myths—tell us is that the meaning of life is the experience of life. Eternity isn’t some later time, eternity isn’t a long time: eternity has nothing to do with time. It is that dimension of here and now which thinking and time obscures.

 The experience of eternity, the infinite, right here and now is the function of ritual. In ritual, we create sacred space, outside of normal space and time. We empty ourselves of thoughts and desires in order to cultivate ritual consciousness – which is not thinking, not looking to the past or future but being completely present and open. Only then can we connect with the infinite. Only then, does pantomime and ceremony become lifted to the level of sacred ritual. Only then do we realise that all the Gods, all the heavens, all the world, are within us.

Ritual lies at the heart of what we do, and it is the part that most people struggle with. I always say to aspirants that unless you can come to ritual properly prepared, and work with ritual consciousness, you will experience nothing but pantomime and find it empty. After a while, if you work on it, you may attain ritual consciousness for a second or two, when you feel a deep connection, before it disappears. The aim is to be able to sustain it throughout the ritual .In a group, the aim is for the whole group to experience it together for the duration of the ritual.

Don’t be put off – if you create a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.

© Anna Franklin 2017

[1] Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

[2] Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

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The Mystery of the Mistletoe

In Pagan times, the mistletoe was considered a potent magical plant because it did not grow on the earth, but on the branches of a tree in a ‘place between places’. It grows into a ball, imitating the sun, and the leaves are fresh and green all year long, making it a plant of immortality and life surviving in the dead time. The berries ripen in December as though it is not affected by the seasons and the winter cold.

Mistletoe is an evergreen, woody parasite growing on the branches of trees, mainly apple and pear, but occasionally on ash, hawthorn and oak trees. It is native to Europe, North Africa and central and western Asia. It may form a bush of up to 5 ft.

In Cornish, its name is ughelvarr; in Breton uhelvarr; in Welsh, uchelwydd, all meaning ‘high branch’ signifying its growing habit or perhaps even its high status. In Irish, it is uil-ioc, meaning ‘all heal’. In Anglo-Saxon it was mistiltan, from tan meaning ‘twig’ and mistl meaning ‘different’ from its habit of growing on other trees. The missel thrush is said to be so called from feeding on its berries.

Pliny said that the mistletoe was one of the most important magical plants of the Celts and served as a symbol for the winter solstice. He recorded that the druids called mistletoe by a name which meant ‘all healing’. They made preparation for sacrifice and a banquet beneath the trees and brought forth two white bulls whose horns were bound for the first time. Robed in white the druid ascended the tree and cut the mistletoe with a golden sickle (probably gilded bronze in actuality) and it was caught by others in a white cloak. The bulls were then killed, accompanied with prayers.

In Germanic myth, the mistletoe was sacred to Donar, the thunder and lightning god. In German, the plant was called Donnerbesen or ‘thunder broom’. The Christians demonised it as a plant of the witches, calling it hexennest (‘witch nest’) or teufelbesen (‘devil’s broom’).

In Norse mythology the mistletoe was used to slay the sun god Balder. One day, Odin discovered Hel was preparing for Balder’s arrival in the Underworld and the Vala prophesied that he would have a child with Rinda the earth goddess who would be called Vali and would avenge Balder’s death. The gods persuaded everything on earth to swear not to harm Balder, except the mistletoe growing on the oak at the gate of Valhalla as it was thought that such a puny plant could not harm him. The gods amused themselves by casting harmless darts at Balder. Loki, god of fire, was jealous of Balder and made a shaft from the mistletoe and tricked Hodur, the blind and dark brother of Balder, into throwing it and killing him. Odin sent Hermod to ask Hel for Balder’s return and she agreed, on condition that all things should weep. All did, except Thok, a giantess, who may have been Loki in disguise, so Balder had to stay in the Underworld. In due course, Vali was born and on the same day, slew Hodur.

This is obviously a seasonal myth relating to the winter solstice. The sun (Balder) is killed by the darkness (Hodur). Vali’s revenge is the breaking forth of new life after the winter darkness. The tears symbolise the spring thaw, when everything drips with moisture. Thok (‘Coal’) alone refuses to weep as she is buried deep in the earth and does not need the light of the sun. After Balder had been resurrected, owing to the pleadings of the other gods and goddesses, the mistletoe was given into the keeping of Frigga, the goddess of love, and it was ordained that anyone who passed beneath the mistletoe should receive a kiss to show that it had become a symbol of peace and love.

Though other evergreens were included in the decorations of churches, mistletoe was the one omission, being considered a Pagan plant. The exception was at York, where on the eve of Christmas-day mistletoe was carried to the high altar of the cathedral and a general pardon and season of peace was proclaimed.

Because the evergreen mistletoe bears its fruit in winter, it is an emblem of fertility. In Swabia, people bound mistletoe to fruit trees during winter in the hope that it would ensure a good fruit harvest. In Austria people put mistletoe in the bedroom to ensure the conception of a child. In Switzerland, it was included in the bridal bouquets to ensure a good marriage.

The mistletoe formed the ‘kissing bough’ and often still does. There was a tradition that the maid who was not kissed under it, at Christmas, would not be married in that coming year. With each kiss, a berry had to be plucked off with each kiss for luck. This seems to have been a purely English custom, though in Lower Austria a pine wreath was hung from the ceiling, while a masked figure hid in a dark corner. Known as ‘Sylvester’, he had a flaxen beard and a wreath of mistletoe. If a youth or maiden happened to pass under the pine wreath, Sylvester sprang out and imprinted a rough kiss. When midnight came he was driven out as the representative of the old year.

Many traditions associate the mistletoe with the New Year, rather than Christmas. In West Shropshire tradition, the bough was not to be put up until New Year’s Eve. Worcestershire farmers gave their Christmas mistletoe to the first cow to calve in the new year to bring luck to the dairy. At New Year, the first person to enter a house should carry a sprig of mistletoe in one hand and a sprig of evergreen in the other. Until quite recently in some rural areas farmers would burn a globe made of mistletoe and hawthorn or blackthorn in the New Year. The ashes would then be thrown onto the field that was to be ploughed first.

At midwinter the berries are ripe and should be cut. Mistletoe berries are used at the midwinter solstice in rituals to give strength to the weakened sun. Mistletoe is seen as a herb of fertility, and a symbol of rebirth. Hang over the doorway at Yule, tied with red ribbon for harmony and to represent a welcome to all who visit, all year round. Replace at the next Yule, throwing the old piece in the Yule fire to burn away the old and welcome the new.

Though the berries of the mistletoe are toxic, the leaves and stems of the mistletoe have been used in herbal medicine. European mistletoe contains eleven proteins and substances called lectins which are currently being investigated for anti-cancer effects.

Adapted from Yule, History, Lore and Celebration by Anna Franklin, Lear Books, 2010

Samhain Journey

As he journeys through the darkness of a cold night, the Fool meets an elderly woman gazing into a cauldron.

“The Wheel turns,” she tells him. “I am the Cailleach, daughter of the winter Sun and mine are the darkest months of the year. I bring an end to summer and growth as I harden the earth with frost. The gates of the Underworld begin to open and the spirits of bane, darkness, winter and chaos creep through. The Otherworld is close and we can speak once more to those who have gone before.

“It is the time for culling and death. Everything dissolves in my cauldron as all things return to the source. But as the mound is raised above the seed, the seed prepares itself for rebirth, and all things are transformed by death.”

From Pagan Ways Tarot by Anna Franklin, Schiffer, 2016

Soul Cakes

SOUL CAKES

6 oz butter

6 oz caster sugar

3 egg yolks

1 lb plain flour

1 tsp mixed spice

3 oz currants

Milk

Mix flour and spice. Cream butter and sugar in a bowl. Beat in egg yolks. Add flour and spice mixture, and the currants. Add enough milk to form a soft dough. Make into flat cakes and mark with a cross. Place on a greased baking tray and bake at 350/180 degrees until golden brown, about 10-15 minutes.

From the Middle Ages until the 1930s, when the practice gradually died out, Soul Cakes were traditionally made for All Hallow’s Eve in England and given out to children and beggars who came to the door singing and pleading for treats:

A soul! a soul! a soul-cake!
Please good Missis, a soul-cake!
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul
Three for Him who made us all.

We use Soul Cakes in our Samhain ritual, putting them out as offerings for the ancestors.

Death & Initiation at the autumn equinox

The eight seasonal festivals of the modern Pagan year teach us about the great cosmic pattern, showing us the ebb and flow of energy in the manifest world and the spiritual truths which underlie them. At the autumn equinox we experience the death that comes before resurrection. This mystery is exemplified by the myth of Demeter and Persephone and the Rites of Eleusis, for as Cicero said:

For among the many excellent and indeed divine institutions which your Athens has brought forth and contributed to human life, none, in my opinion, is better than those mysteries. For by their means we have been brought out of our barbarous and savage mode of life and educated and refined to a state of civilization; and as the rites are called ‘initiations’, so in very truth we have learned from them the beginnings of life, and have gained the power not only to live happily, but also to die with a better hope.

Cicero, Laws II, xiv, 36

The best known story of Demeter concerns her search for her daughter Persephone and it is told in The Hymn to Demeter, attributed to Homer but probably written later in the seventh century BCE to explain the mysteries of Eleusis. It contains a lengthy interlude which explains how Demeter came to Eleusis and established her cult there. It shares the same themes as the Syrian myth of Aphrodite and Adonis, the Phrygian myth of Cybele and Attis and the Egyptian story of Isis and Osiris in which a goddess mourns the loss of a loved one who personifies the vegetation which dies in winter only to revive in spring. d

According to the myth, Hades, the god of the underworld, conceived a passion for the maiden Persephone. With the collusion of his brother Zeus, he abducted Persephone as she picked blood red poppies in a meadow, accompanied by her nymph companions, and took her to dwell with him in his dark realm of the dead.

 

Knowing nothing of this, Demeter was distraught at the disappearance of her daughter, and disguised herself as an old woman called Doso to search the earth for Persephone.

Eventually, finding no trace of her missing child, she came upon the house of Celeus, king of Eleusis, and his wife Metaneira. Moved by the suffering they saw in the face of the old woman, they bade her be seated, offering her food and drink. However, she sat silently, refusing all nourishment. After much persuasion, she consented to drink a cup of barley meal mixed with water and mint (kykeon). She stayed at Eleusis, becoming the nurse of the king’s young son Demophoon. Under her care he grew as fast as a young god, for Demeter anointed him with ambrosia. Moreover, she planned to make him immortal by burning his mortality from him, placing him each night in the heart of a fire. Metaneira suspected that something strange was happening and kept watch one night. As she saw her son being plunged into the flames, she leapt forward and snatched the child from his nurse.  Demeter exclaimed that now, instead of being a god, he would be subject to the whims of death and moira (fate). She threw off her disguise and stood before the king and queen in her true, shining form, and asked that they should build her a temple at Eleusis.

Then the witch goddess Hecate, bearing a torch in her hands, went to Demeter, and confided that she had heard Persephone’s cries as she was abducted. She suggested that Demeter ask Helios, the sun god who sees all things, for news. Helios told her of Hades’ kidnapping of Persephone, and Zeus’ part in it.

Demeter retreated into her temple and remained there, brooding on her loss. The following year, no crops grew. The trees refused to yield fruit and the buds withered on the vine. An endless winter descended on the earth.

Zeus realised that the whole of creation was doomed unless Demeter lifted her curse and sent Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, to plead with her to relent. Demeter refused. One by one, all the immortals visited her but she remained unmoved by any of their entreaties. Zeus finally realised that there was no other remedy but to restore Persephone to her mother and sent Hermes into the underworld to fetch her. However, Hades was unwilling to lose his lovely bride and cunningly offered her a sweet pomegranate as she readied herself to leave. Now he knew full well that anyone who eats the fruit of the underworld is doomed to remain there. Thus it fell that though Persephone was allowed to visit her mother, she was now bound to return. Persephone could spend two thirds of the year with Demeter but the remaining third of the year must be spent with her husband, Hades. From that time Hecate was minister and companion to Persephone.

With Persephone’s return, the earth quickly began to recover. Spring came and the frozen buds blossomed, the earth became green and fertile once more. But when Persephone returns to the underworld, Demeter decrees that barren winter shall cover the earth, but when she emerges in the spring, the earth blossoms in joy.

At Eleusis (‘Advent’) Demeter taught Triptolemus (the brother of Demophoon) the principles of agriculture, which he taught others in turn, and this was how humankind learned how to farm, it was said. ‘I am Demeter, revered by all, the power most useful for gods and men,’ she said, according to the Homeric Hymn.

For two thousand years, the Mysteries of Eleusis were sacred, biannual rituals performed a few miles west of Athens in honour of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone. Large crowds of worshippers made the pilgrimage to the rites from all over Greece, and later from all over the Roman Empire.  It is possible that the mysteries evolved from an agrarian cult dating back to the Mycenaean period, and there are parallels with the cults of other grain and earth-mother goddesses of the Near East, such as Cybele and Isis.

Initiation was open to all, Greeks and foreigners (as long as they could speak Greek), men and women, freemen and slaves, only on the condition that they had not committed the sin of murder. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, King Celeus is said to have been one of the first people to learn the secret rites and mysteries of her cult and became one of its first priests, along with Triptolemus his son. Around 300 BCE, the state took over control of the Mysteries and they became controlled by two families, the Eumolpidae and the Kerykes. According to Plato, “the ultimate design of the Mysteries … was to lead us back to the principles from which we descended … a perfect enjoyment of intellectual (spiritual) good.”

In many parts of Greece the rites of Demeter and Persephone remained orgiastic, but in Eleusis they were celebrated as a spiritual mystery.  From February 1 to 3 the Lesser Eleusinian mysteries celebrated the return of Persephone from the underworld. The Lesser Mysteries took place in the month of Anthesteria (February) when participants would sacrifice a piglet to Demeter and Persephone and then purify themselves in the River Illisos. Afterwards they were called mystai (‘initiates’) and deemed worthy of witnessing the Greater Mysteries. Each new initiate would receive instructions and guidance from an experienced sponsor or mystagogos. A mystes who returned a second time to Eleusis for induction into the highest levels of esoteric knowledge was known as an epoptes.

Every fifth year for nine days from 23 September the greater Eleusinian Mysteries were celebrated with October 4 marking the departure of Persephone to the underworld.[1] The precise nature of the mysteries is unknown since initiates were forbidden from writing or speaking of it, but an analogy seems to have been made between the resurrection of the corn and the return of Persephone from the underworld with the mystery of death and rebirth.

The first act was the bringing of the sacred objects from Eleusis to the Eleusinion, a temple at the base of the Acropolis. On the day before, the participants would gather in Eleusis and proceed with much pomp to the sanctuary of Demeter in Athens. On the following day the actual festival commenced with the Agyrmos (the gathering), the hierophants (priests or ‘those who show the sacred ones’) declared prorrhesis, the start of the rites, and carried out the hiereía deúro (‘hither the victims’) sacrifice. The halade mystai (‘seawards initiates’) began in Athens with the celebrants washing themselves in the sea at Phaleron to purify themselves and sacrifice a suckling pig in honour of Demeter.

On the fifth day the celebrants went in formal procession from Athens back to Eleusis, swinging branches called bacchoi, bearing the sacred hiera (holy relics) as well as a statue of the boy-god Iacchos. At a certain spot along the way, they shouted obscenities in commemoration of Iambe (or Baubo), an old woman who, by cracking dirty jokes, had made Demeter smile as she mourned the loss of her daughter. The procession also shouted “Íakch’, O Íakche”’ referring to Iacchus.

Upon reaching Eleusis, there was a day of fasting in commemoration of Demeter’s fast while searching for Persephone. The abstinence was broken with a brew made from barley and water mixed with fresh pennyroyal mint leaves.  Some scholars have argued that this may have contained a psychedelic agent such as ergot, opium or hallucinogenic mushrooms which would heighten the initiates’ perceptions and explain the transformative experiences they had. Wasson proposed the mushroom Claviceps purpurea as holding the secret to the Eleusinian Mysteries:

The Greek ekstasis meant the flight of the soul from the body. I am certain that this word came into being to describe the effect of the Mystery of Eleusis. Can you find a better word than that to describe the bemushroomed state?” e

The Greeks called mushrooms the ‘food of the Gods’ (broma theon) and Porphyrius is quoted as having called them ‘nurslings of the Gods’ (theotrophos).

Then the initiates entered a great hall called Telesterion, in the centre of which stood the Anaktoron (‘palace’), which only the hierophants could enter, where the sacred objects were stored. Before mystai could enter the Telesterion, they would recite, “I have fasted, I have drunk the kykeon, I have taken from the kiste (‘box’) and after working it have put it back in the kalathos (‘open basket’)”. Clement of Alexandria wrote that they had to utter the words “I fasted; I drank the kykeon; I took from the kiste; having done my task, I placed in the basket, and from the basket into the kiste”.f

What happened next is not known. The spoken words were followed by secret rites carried out in silence, completing the first part of the initiation. The second phase of the initiation was a spiritual experience. Aristotle commented: “The initiates were not meant to learn anything, but rather, to experience certain emotions and moods.” g  However, based on the statements of Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian, it is thought that the Mysteries comprised of three main elements:

The first was called dromena (‘things done’), a dramatic re-enactment of the Demeter/Persephone myth, perhaps with the participants searching for Persephone through passages representing the underworld, followed by the joyful moment of her resurrection shared by the initiates who had shared her experience.

The second element was the deiknumena (‘things shown’), during which the hierophant displayed sacred objects. It is not known what these were, but various theories have suggested wheat ears, bread, a stylised phallus and pudenda, a golden serpent, an egg or seeds sacred to Demeter. The Church Father Hippolytus, writing in the early third century, said that

The Athenians, while initiating people into the Eleusinian rites, likewise display to those who are being admitted to the highest grade at these mysteries, the mighty, and marvellous, and most perfect secret suitable for one initiated into the highest mystic truths: an ear of corn in silence reaped.”

The Roman Varro interpreted the whole of the Eleusinian mysteries as relating to the corn which Demeter had discovered and to Persephone who, he said, signified the fecundity of the seeds, stolen away by Hades and detained in the underworld. Augustine reported that Varro continued:

“…that many things were taught in her mysteries which had no reference but to the discovery of the corn.” h

The third century Roman theologian Hippolytus of Rome also said that the most complete epoptic mystery was an ear of cut-wheat and wrote that:

“At night in Eleusis, (the Hierophant) appearing in the midst of many fires, proclaims the great and secret mystery, saying, ‘The Holy Brimo has borne a sacred child, Brimos, that is, the mighty has borne the mighty”. i

Finally came the legomena (‘things said’), commentaries that accompanied the deiknumena. Combined, these three elements were known as the apporheta (‘unrepeatables’) and the penalty for divulging them was death. It was for this crime (among others) that Diagoras received the death penalty, while the tragic playwright Aeschylus was allegedly tried for revealing secrets of the Mysteries in some of his plays, but was acquitted.

Following this section of the Mysteries was the Pannychis, an all-night feast accompanied by dancing and merriment. The dances took place in the Rharian Field, rumoured to be the first spot where grain grew. A bull sacrifice also took place late that night or early the next morning. That day the initiates honoured the dead by pouring libations from special vessels, the consecrated liquid flowing in the eastward and westward directions.

The initiates (probably exhausted at this point) would then return to Athens singly or in small groups. There does not appear to have been any organized procession; this was a time for reflection and meditation. Sophocles spoke for the initiates when he said:

Thrice happy are those of mortals, who having seen those rites depart for Hades; for to them alone is granted to have a true life there. For the rest, all there is evil.”

 In 170 CE, the Temple of Demeter was sacked by the Sarmatians but was rebuilt by Marcus Aurelius who was then allowed to become the only lay person to ever enter the anaktoron. Julian, the last Pagan emperor of Rome, was also the last emperor to be initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries. With the growing dominance of Christianity Theodosius I decreed that the sanctuaries should be closed in 392 CE. With the invasion of the Christian Goths four years later, the old sanctuaries were destroyed.

© Anna Franklin, excerpt from Autumn Equinox, History, Lore and Celebration, Lear Books

 

[1]           (Demeter’s other festivals were 13th and 24th December, while the twelfth day of the waxing moon and the second day of the waning moon were sacred to her.)

 

SPIRITUAL FALLOW PERIODS

I’ve had several people contacting me lately complaining that their spirituality seems to have dried up, or that they have stopped feeling any connection.

Sometimes this happens; I’ve experienced it myself many times. When it happened, I came to realise it had been entirely my fault; the Gods had not withdrawn from me, I had unwittingly withdrawn from them.

We talk about magical and spiritual currents, and this is quite literal – if you stop plugging in, you stop being connected. It’s no good complaining the toaster won’t work if you haven’t plugged it into the socket and turned the power on, and it is the same with spiritual energy and connection with a tradition.

I believe that the power of the Gods flows throughout creation, underpinning all life and giving it meaning. It can be a joyous spiritual and emotional sustenance for those who connect with it, but though it is eternal and always present, each day we can choose to be open to it and accept it or we can reject it, ignore it, or put up emotional barriers to it. Compassionate love is the free flowing energy of the soul, but selfishness, hatred and resentment dries and dams it up.

Sometimes spiritual disconnection occurs during difficult life events. When you go through something traumatic or sad, it is natural that your efforts are directed to sorting out your problems. If you have a spiritual response, it might just be to ask for things (sort this out for me, stop it happening) or berate and blame the Gods and for what has happened (why me? why are you punishing me?) and by extension your spiritual path for not giving you immunity. These are barriers we might inadvertently erect to connection with the free flowing of spirit. As Pagans, we believe that we weave our own wyrd, through action or inaction, and are responsible for our own fates, but that often flies out of the window in such circumstances, and we demand that the Gods bend to our will.

(Of course, the opposite can happen, and when something bad occurs, like a serious illness, it can bring you closer to spirit as the concerns of the mundane world drop away, and the connection is like a tap being turned on, and I’ve experienced this too on several occasions. During my recent illness I experienced vision after vision of the flow of spiritual power. That didn’t stop me feeling sorry for myself when recovery was slower than I hoped, and being disappointed that the visions had stopped before I realised I needed to change my approach and reconnect.)

Sometimes after initiation into the Craft people experience a spiritual fallow period. I think occasionally the Gods give them a breathing space to absorb what has happened, but more often it is because the candidate considers that now they have achieved their goal they can stop trying, sit back and the sparks will fly on their command. The truth is that they have been unalterably changed by the initiation – which is the point – and thus their approach and means of connection need to change and be redoubled as a responsible priest/priestess.

 

 

Flax and the Weaver Goddess

Linen, the oldest known textile, is made from the flax plant. Its association with mankind goes back to around 8000 BC with the cloth being used by prehistoric cave dwellers in Europe. Fragments of clothing, linen fishing nets and unworked flax have been found in Switzerland in the remains of Stone Age lake dwellings, and decorated spindle whorls (holed stones used to weight the spindle whilst spinning thread) have been found in prehistoric cave dwellings. Linen shrouds and seeds have been found in Egyptian tombs, several of which depict flax cultivation in the wall decorations. Homer mentions white linen sails in the Odyssey and the plant is mentioned several times in the Bible, including the ‘fine twined linen’ prescribed for the temple veil. A passage in Joshua describes the flax being pulled and tied in bundles and retted in water for several weeks, a method still used today.

Spinning and weaving was always the business of women. Girls were taught the arts as part of their rite of passage at puberty. We still call the female side of the family ‘the distaff side’.

The circular action of the spinning wheel is associated with the turning of the zodiac through the heavens, the turning of day and night, the passage of the seasons and the cycle of life itself.  The movement of the spindle, both back and forth and in a circular motion, is sometimes seen as an image of the cosmos, making the continuous thread of life.  For this reason the flax is sacred to the Weaver Goddess, who spins the thread of life and weaves the fabric of the cosmos, the warp and weft of fate. The Weaver Goddess appears in many mythologies in various forms.  In Greek myth the Three Fates or Moerae appear, always clothed in white. Their Greek name means ‘phase’ as in the phases of the moon, the spinner and measurer of time. The thread of life is spun on Clotho’s spindle, measured by the rod of Lachesis and snipped by Atropos’ shears.  In stature Atropos was the smallest of the three, but by far the most feared, relating as she does to the crone of winter, the death goddess. According to Greek custom, family and clan marks were woven into a baby’s swaddling bands, allotting him his place in society. The Three Fates of Greek myth are paralleled in Norse lore by the Three Norns who weave the web of fate.

The weaver goddess is always associated with magic.  The Egyptian Isis was the patroness of weaving but she also wove magic and could heal, while Meith was also known as a magician and her symbol was a weaver’s shuttle. She was titled ‘The Opener of the Ways’ and conducted souls to the underworld. This idea of following a linen thread into or out of the underworld is echoed in other myths such as Ariadne leading Theseus out of the labyrinth of the Minotaur by means of a thread, and the witch goddess Hecate leading the corn goddess Demeter into the underworld with a thread to find her daughter Persephone. The latter was re-enacted by the initiates of the Eleusinian mysteries.

The growing of flax was surrounded with ritual. The old Prussians performed a ceremony to make the crops grow high.  The tallest girl of the village stood on one foot on a seat, with a lap full of cakes, a cup of brandy in her right hand and a piece of elm or linden bark in her left, praying to the god Weizganthos that the flax might grow as high as she was standing.  She would then drain the cup, have it refilled and pour it onto the ground as an offering to the god.  Then she threw down the cakes for his sprites.  If she managed to remain steady on one foot, it was a good omen.  If she put her left foot down, it was an omen that the crop might fail. This standing on one foot is a shamanic practice and denotes having one foot in the manifest world and one foot in the Otherworld. In the Tyrol, a fir tree was topped with a figure called ‘a witch’ and burned on the first Sunday in lent.  The embers were planted in the flax fields to keep vermin away. When the flax waved in the wind, the people of Magdeburg said: ‘It will be a good year for flax.  The flax mother has been seen.’ In Swabia, young men and women would join hands and leap the midsummer fire, shouting ‘Flax, flax, may the flax this year grow seven ells high.’  In Switzerland the fire was leapt over as high as possible to make the flax grow.

Linen robes make one of the best magical garments. A linen thread may be employed in initiation rituals where the candidate must find his or her way to the centre of a maze, or flax threads may be woven by members of a magical group in a ritual to bind them to each other in friendship. Flax may be used in an incense, an infused oil or an infusion to consecrate the ritual wheel or sun/moon disc or zodiac symbol.  Flax incense may be used to invoke the Goddesses Arachne, Athene, Arianrhod, Brighid, the Fates, Frigg, Hulda, Inanna, Isis, Meith, Minerva, Neith and the Norns. Flax may also be used in incenses of the planet Mercury and the element of fire or be thrown onto the ritual fire at Midsummer. Linen fibre from the perennial flax can be used to make paper for magical scripts.

The common flax is also used medicinally. Country people would boil the fresh, whole herb and take it for rheumatic pains, colds, coughs and dropsy. Linseed oil, made from flax seeds, is added to cough medicines and used medicinally as an infusion for the treatment of colds, coughs, catarrh, bronchitis, urinary infections and pulmonary infections. The infusion can be used externally for boils, ulcers, cuts and inflammations. For a poultice the seeds can be boiled until soft or they can be pulverised and placed between two gauzes applied as hot as tolerable to rheumatic aches and pains or applied when cooler for ulceration, inflammation, irritation and pain.

CAUTION: IMMATURE SEEDS CAN BE POISONOUS