Always Exploring

September 27, 2019

This is Stony Pond in Essex County. The Adirondacks are famous for the High Peaks, but the trails lead to a plethora of enchanting waterholes.

Autumn Trails

September 20, 2019

Sometime soon I’ll put together a collage of photos I’m taking on the trail. Beautiful weather in the Adirondacks recently, perfect for hiking. Won’t last, so this is where my spare energy is going right now. This photo is from Pharoah Mountain (pronounced FAIR-uh).

New Post at Return to Mago

September 13, 2019

I have another post on the Return to Mago website. This is about beer brewing, and an account of a myth of Inanna involving beer.

Drinking beer through straws in Mesopotamia. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A Shift in Perspective

August 30, 2019

All of our discontents for what we want appear to me to spring from want of thankfulness for what we have. 
~ Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

I decided recently that I was in a rut, spending too much time in familiar territory. I’m an Aries, and we don’t fall into this trap easily nor do we tolerate it for long. I think financial difficulties combined with healing from injuries kept me focused on issues in front of my face. The financial problems are still here, but they’ve relaxed somewhat, and some of the injuries have resolved and others are resolving. I’ve been feeling like something indefinable has shifted in me.

So, I decided to make an effort to broaden my horizons a bit, to read new authors and hike new trails. I decided to read Robinson Crusoe, because it’s been on my list forever and I’ve never gotten around to it.

What’s ironic is that the story opens with a warning against adventure. The protagonist is a young man from comfortable circumstances who decides he wants to see the world and seek novel experiences. His father emphatically tells him “not to play the young man, nor to precipitate myself into miseries which nature and the station of life I was born in, seemed to have provided against…”

Well, that’s Robinson Crusoe. I’ll see when I finish the book if he remains repentant for submitting to his restive nature. Meanwhile, I drove some distance yesterday to a mountain I haven’t hiked before. It took some time to get there, because sitting in a car is uncomfortable for me and I had to make a few stops. Also, I ran into a lot of road construction and that slowed my journey. It wasn’t the best day for a hike because the area had been deluged with rain the day before and the trail was swampy and the rocks slippery. I don’t have pictures, because I wasn’t aware that I was on top of the mountain when I got there; I arrived so quickly at the height of land that I didn’t think I was there and continued along the loop trail. For all that, I enjoyed the hike and would like to return on a drier day. I returned with a new appreciation for the beauty of the trails in my own backyard and a realization that their difficulty has made me a strong hiker.

Adirondack High Peaks from Newcomb

Desolate Places

August 22, 2019

It was the owl that shriek’d, the fatal bellman
Which gives the stern’st good-night.

~ William Shakespeare, MacBeth

Two of the most forsaken places in popular imagination are cemeteries at night and deep outer space. I spent an evening earlier this week at Norton Cemetery stargazing with a friend who has a really good telescope.

Photo: Greg Smith

As we waited for twilight to deepen, a bat flitted over our heads. Eastern Coyotes wailed in the distance. As the night got underway, a Long-Eared Owl began her subtle one-note song.

The Ojibwe call death “crossing the owl bridge,” and the Tohono O’odham bury owl feathers with loved ones. The association in Western Europe of owls with death is thought to carry over from the pre-Indo-European practice of excarnation, the placement of dead bodies on platforms to be devoured by birds. But all the bodies in this cemetery were in the ground.

Photo: Rawastrodata

I heard the territorial scream of a Long-Eared Owl a few years ago, and I’ll never forget it. A friend and I were camping and awakened in the night by the sound, so piercing that we scrambled out of our sleeping bags trying to place it. In contrast, the single long note of the placid Long-Eared Owl could easily be missed if not repeated.

The stargazing was great. We looked at Saturn with his rings and Jupiter with his moons and debated how “Io” should be pronounced (I say EE-oh, you say EYE-oh).

One of the most awesome sights through the telescope, six thousand light years away, was the Wild Duck star cluster. It was discovered in 1681 by Gottfried Kirch and included in Charles Messier’s 1764 catalog (M-11). It is supposed to resemble the tale of a duck in flight. Honestly, I couldn’t see it, but it is a beautiful cluster.

All Hail the Fisher

August 16, 2019

This week I participated in a storytelling project about the Adirondacks. I chose the fisher as my subject, an animal I did not know existed before moving here.

The fisher is a member of the weasel family, the size of a large cat and sometimes called a fishercat. When pussies go missing in the Adirondacks, though, the culprit is often a fisher.

Fishers are quite aggressive, snarling and hissing at people who surprise them rather than running away. They feed on animals much larger than they are and can even kill and eat porcupines! Once a fisher lunged at me, probably defending a kill.

The fisher who frightened me so badly was on the ground, but fishers spend most of their time in the trees. They need large expanses of uninterrupted forest, so they are only found in sparsely populated areas of North America.

If you encounter a fisher in the wild, give her plenty of room. She is not impressed by your larger size, and she is much meaner than you.

Iphigenia in Aulis

August 9, 2019

I was reading Iphigenia in Aulis this week, and another thought struck me about this myth.

The Greeks performed a ritual to Artemis prior to attacking Troy, offering Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia to her priestesshood, in order to secure favorable winds and other blessings from the goddess, who was venerated along the coast of Asia Minor. Buttering up the gods of the people you planned to attack, trying to get them to move over to your side, was an ancient war strategy. The story goes that Iphigenia was going to be killed at the altar, but by a miracle Artemis substituted a deer (or sometimes, a bear) at the last minute. This made a better story, but it (probably) was an embellishment. Maybe as part of the ritual to Artemis a deer was sacrificed. Maybe Iphigenia initially protested being relegated into chastity. Her mother almost certainly wasn’t onboard with the plan. But I’m not going along with the miracle substitution.

Photo: Elfer

I was thinking this week about how Judy Grahn and other feminists have viewed the Trojan War as a last stand against Western patriarchy, the defeated Trojans representing the matriarchy. The all-women priestesshoods were relics from the matriarchies, their continuation an uneasy truce, or even a condition of surrender. As patriarchy gained a firmer hold, the Witch hunts of the Catholic (later Protestant) church sought to eliminate these relics of female power. The persecution of Dianics by American Witches are a continuation of that quest to subdue female power under male domination. Thinking of the autonomous priestesshood as a term of surrender puts the attacks on Dianics within Paganism in sharper focus. The three major methods of maintaining female subordination under Patriarchy are violence, economic oppression, and religion. Destruction of religious self-determination for women is an essential part of patriarchal control on the left and the right.

I tell the story of Iphigenia in my book, Invoking Animal Magic: A guide for the pagan priestess.

A Priestess for Artemis

Iphigenia means “mother of strong children” and is probably an early name for Artemis or another bear goddess who became merged with Artemis. It later became an honorary title for her priestess. There are conflicting versions to the following story, but this much is not in dispute: The hero Agamemnon, leading an offensive against Troy, made little headway with his fleet due to unfavorable winds sent by Artemis, whom Agamemnon had offended. After consulting an oracle, Agamemnon offered Artemis his eldest daughter Iphigenia, thus earning the implacable wrath of his wife, Clytemnestra.

King Agamemnon of Mycenae was on the wrong side of Artemis from the start. His father had failed to honor a vow that he would sacrifice a prized lamb to the Huntress, and there is no record that the son felt an obligation to make good the pledge. Agamemnon, so capable in manly pursuits, once slew a white stag with a single arrow and boasted that Artemis could do no better. So true this boast: the beast was a member of the Virgin’s chariot team, and she would never have slain it.

When Queen Helen ran away with the Trojan prince Paris, Agamemnon took command of the retaliatory mission. Here was a chance to lead a great coalition and gain heroic stature. So much more the pleasure of Artemis, whose sympathies were inclined toward the Trojans, in thwarting Agamemnon’s plans. As the fleet readied to embark, an unfavorable northeast wind stranded them in the harbor of Aulis for weeks. Some say the goddess was miffed over the killing of a hare and cursed the whole expedition. Impatient to sail and bewildered by the persistent bad wind, Agamemnon called for an oracle. A chicken was gutted and the seer declared Artemis must be coaxed with a sacrifice of Agamemnon’s oldest daughter.

At first Agamemnon demurred. His wife would never surrender the girl, he protested. The military cohorts devised a scheme: send a messenger to the mother explaining that the demigod and prince Achilles wished to marry the princess, and she must come at once.

Clytemnestra, whose ambitions were wholly channeled in securing an advantageous match for her beautiful daughter, hastened to Aulis with Iphigenia, where a comedy of errors—or perhaps a tragedy of errors—awaited them. Agamemnon’s secret letter to Clytemnestra exposing the ruse had been intercepted, and the strong-willed matron arrived against her husband’s expectations demanding a marriage contract. Achilles, innocent and uninformed of the subterfuge (and married to someone else besides), was protesting there had been a mistake. Priests were completing preparations for Iphigenia’s dedication. The bamboozled daughter was balking at the plan, and her mother began begging Agamemnon and then threatening him. Surely there was a face-saving way out of the mess, by declaring Achilles an unknowing partner to deception if nothing else, but the fact remained that ships were stuck in harbor and men were itching for war.

Iphigenia, realizing her father’s ambitions and her country’s future revolved around her, finally stepped forward and declared she would go to Artemis. Iphigenia was as loyal, devoted and obedient as she was beautiful. Or maybe filial duty and patriotism were just a piece of it, and Artemis herself seduced the girl. Perhaps Artemis promised her adventure in a far flung country. She could be mistress of a great temple. The possessions of rich ladies who died in childbirth were sent to this temple, and Iphigenia’s beauty could be displayed against the finest fabrics and jewels.

Iphigenia’s acquiescence stirred a whirlwind. At the altar of Artemis the priests raised their knives to slit the girl’s throat, but at the last moment a bear cub was switched in her stead, and Iphigenia was swept on a red cloud to the land of Tauris. The same wind that whisked the new priestess filled the sails of the Greek fleet, and they were off to conquer Troy.

In offering Artemis the coveted maiden, Agamemnon was given the favorable wind he requested, but the act never improved the disposition of the goddess toward him. Later she abandoned him to the wrath of Clytemnestra.

It would be inaccurate to say the sacrifice of Iphigenia turned Clytemnestra away from her husband, for he had earned her hatred long ago. There comes a point, however, where dislike becomes disloyalty, and the proud mother had envisioned a greater future for her daughter than being exiled in a remote temple wearing dead women’s clothes. That the victorious Agamemnon returned from the war to be trapped in his wife’s net should surprise no one.

Iphigenia did not learn of her father’s fate for many years, until her brother Orestes was cast ashore at her temple under mysterious circumstances. As high priestess, Iphigenia presided over the slaying of refugees at the altar of Artemis, and during the pre-ceremonial interview learned of his identity.

What was Orestes doing in Tauris? Orestes admitted he was running from the horror of his actions. He had killed Clytemnestra, with Apollo’s approval, to avenge her murder of their father. After the filthy deed, Orestes was called to account before the Olympians, where Apollo spoke in his defense. The gods quarreled over his fate along political lines until the goddess Athena cast a vote with Apollo, tipping the verdict in Orestes’ favor.

An acquittal won through a brilliant defender and a stacked jury does not automatically erase the pangs of conscience, however, and Orestes had committed a horrendous deed. The Furies, sister deities who rule the conscience, tormented him for his crime until, driven to the edges of insanity, he consulted an oracle for a remedy. The oracle instructed him to steal the sacred statue of Artemis at Tauris and carry it to Brauron, where he was to build a new temple to the goddess. If he was unable to carry out this feat, Orestes declared, he might at as well die in Tauris; he could not go on living with this torment.

Surprisingly, Iphigenia decided to help her brother. She had grown tired of her exile and longed for the customs, faces and clothing styles of her native country. She told the Taurian king that Orestes and his companion were polluted by matricide and must be cleansed before sacrifice. That much was true; Orestes was not fit to have his throat slit on the altar of Artemis. She further told the leaders of her host country that she was borrowing the statue of the goddess for the purification rites. Iphigenia was certainly the double-crossing daughter of Agamemnon

Orestes consulting the oracle. Notice the snakes on the priestess hovering above the tripod. Photo Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons.

Miraculously, with much adventure and intercession of the gods, the brother and sister eventually reached the ancient shrine in Brauron. A new temple was built, with the sacred image installed therein, and Iphigenia was named high priestess of the complex.

The presence of an important temple to Artemis so close to the city was an honor that made the Athenians nervous, as the wrath of Artemis had already sparked so many misadventures. Every family that could spare a daughter for a year sent the girl to Brauron to attend the goddess and learn the Brauronia ritual. The girls were called little bears and charmed the goddess with their dances. In this way, Artemis extended her healing side to Athens, protecting against plagues and enhancing the survival of infants and their mothers.