The Maiden Returns

March 29, 2019
Wildflowers in Death Valley, California. Photo: Chuck Abbe.

Spring is when most Witches celebrate the maiden goddess Persephone and her reunion with her mother Demeter. Persephone is the Queen of the Underworld and Demeter is the Goddess of Grain.

According to the standard version of the myth, the child-goddess Persephone is picking flowers with her nymph friends when the god Hades emerges from his underworld kingdom and abducts the maiden, forcing her to become his wife. The distraught mother Demeter retreats into her sorrow, refusing to tend her plants. The earth dries up.

Alarmed at the dying vegetation, the remaining gods unite to pressure Hades to relinquish the maiden goddess. Hades relents and agrees to release Persephone, provided she has eaten nothing while in the land of the dead. Of course this is trickery, because Persephone has eaten one pomegranate seed. A compromise is reached, whereby Persephone spends one-third of the year in the underworld and two-thirds of the year above ground.

While this myth explains the fertile and fallow periods of the agricultural calendar quite well, there are parts of the story that don’t fit. How is the Goddess of Death able to spend most of her time in the land of living? Gods and goddesses go back and forth between these worlds all the time, but welcoming the spirits of the dead isn’t a job you can just pack up and leave, except maybe for a long weekend. If Persephone is integral to the world below, and the poets insist that she is, then surely she can’t live in Greece two-thirds of the year. She would be considered a full-time resident for tax purposes (and husband Hades has a ton of assets).

Many scholars resolve this confusion with the conjecture that Persephone has been syncretized with another goddess, who is Demeter’s daughter in the myth. Since Persephone is often addressed in Classical texts by the title Kore, which means “Maiden,” this inferred goddess is called Kore. Separating Persephone into two personas goes a long way to clearing up the confusion.

But there is another problem. Persephone’s cult, the Eleusinian Mysteries, welcomed her back to the land of the living at the Autumn Equinox, rather than in the spring. In a lot of ways this makes sense, since the spring wildflower season in the Aegean is succeeded by hot dry months inhospitable to agriculture. Recall that Kore-Persephone is picking wildflowers when she is abducted. At the same time, Classical texts often place Kore’s return as the spring. This is most commonly considered the season of the world reborn. Perhaps the timing of the myth has been modified to apply to other localities or later agricultural practices.

When does Kore-Persephone leave and when does she return? It probably depends not only on hemisphere, but climate. In low-desert places in the northern hemisphere, most agricultural activity ceases as summer approaches. Or perhaps it depends on whether you live by an agricultural calendar at all. If you follow an academic calendar, summer is a time of rest and productivity reboots in the autumn. Spring is when most Witches celebrate the maiden goddess Persephone and her reunion with her mother Demeter.

Sources:

Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, Compete Edition, London: Penguin Books, 1960.

Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Gregory Nagy, trans. Center for Hellenic Studies at Harvard University.

Patricia Monaghan, The Book of Goddesses and Heroines. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Books, 1990.

Persephone. Theoi.com.

The poppy is believed to be Persephone’s flower. Photo: Cristian Bortes, Cluj-Napoca, Romania

Essay on Cundrie in RTM

March 15, 2019

Holy Grail stained glass at Quimper Cathedral. Image: Thesupermat.

The exceedingly ugly and scary woman is ubiquitous in European fairytales. Tales such a Hansel and Gretel and Vasalissa the Beautiful cast her as evil, but this is a later manifestation and a patriarchal reversal. The original archetype, while unattractive, is frightening because she is the voice of conscience. She confronts the hero or heroine with a sense of responsibility to core values. Conscience may be an unpleasant guest, but it is the opposite of evil.

Read the rest at Return to Mago

Another glowing review for Divining with Animal Guides

March 8, 2019

In the March 1 issues of PaganPages, Susan Rossi writes:

” I was delighted to discover that Divining with Animal Guides is not a cookbook dictionary, concretizing the “meanings” of animal encounters. Author Hearth Moon Rising has created a manual for learning to observe and discern and ultimately, to shift our strictly human viewpoint. Only when we look at the context in which the animals offer us their messages are we able to fully understand their invitations and gifts. “

Read the entire review here.

Musing on Cundrie

March 1, 2019
Vision of the Holy Grail by William Morris 1890

In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, a tale from the Arthurian canon, a sorceress named Cundrie plays a pivotal role in the plot. She first appears to chide Parzival (Percival) for failing in his task to attain the Grail. She is described as a maiden no knight would ride for: hideously ugly. She has the ears of a bear, the fingernails of a lion, the hands of a monkey, incisors like boar tusks, and a nose like a dog. She is apparently a young woman, however, because her hair, coarse like a pig’s bristles, is black.

Wolfram tells us that Cundrie’s beastly qualities were given to her as punishment for Adam’s sins, yet she is not debased in her dress and education. Despite her homely appearance, she is richly dressed in the finest silks. She is a learned woman, fluent in many languages, including Arabic. In the Middle Ages, Arabs had a reputation as exceptional scholars, especially in astronomy and mathematics, subjects we are told Cundrie has mastered. Despite her aristocratic bearing, Cundrie arrives on a mule, not a horse.

Cundrie represents wisdom in her encounter with Parzival, upbraiding him for not asking an important question. She later dispenses a healing potion. Though her animal qualities are characterized as sinful, pre-Christian Celtic-Germanic beliefs held the boar, bear, lion, and hound as particularly sacred. (The monkey doesn’t seem to fit, though.)

Cundrie is a puzzle. She seems like she may be a shape shifting animal goddess demoted to an ugly maiden cursed by God to appeal to Christian sensibilities. She retains her function as guardian of knowledge.

Update on Shoulder

February 22, 2019

Recovery from torn rotator cuff is progressing very nicely. Range of motion in all directions is between 92 and 100%. I’m working on regaining strength so I can return to my previous activities.

This has been a singular experience for me. I’m more of a process than a goal oriented person. I do have goals, but they are invariably tied to process, and once I finish a project I lose interest in it. This healing process has had little to recommend it: time consuming, boring, and often painful. So I have had to keep the goal in mind consistently.

Still, this has been, in many ways, one of my sweetest achievements.

Nature Never Shuts Down

February 15, 2019
Photo: Jerry Kirkhart

During the December-January US government shutdown, over fifty female Northern Elephant Seals decided to turn Drakes Beach at Point Reyes National Seashore into a nursery. With most National Park employees on furlough, the seals settled in with no hassles and at this point cannot be chased off.

While I often saw Sea Lions when I lived in California, I did not become acquainted with Elephant Seals, though I hiked at Point Reyes regularly. There are numerous nursing colonies on isolated beaches from Oregon to the Baja region in Mexico. Elephant Seal populations are unknown since they live in poorly accessible regions even while breeding.

Photo: Frank Schulenburg

True to their name, these mamas are huge, weighing over a thousand pounds. Males are much larger. They roar like an elephant and have a funny nose. When not breeding, Elephant Seals live in eastern Pacific waters as far north as the Aleutian Islands. They eat fish, sharks, and squid.

Colonies will take off again around April, after pups have weaned and mothers have mated. They tend to return to the same breeding grounds year after year, so it is unclear whether Drakes Beach will be ever be open year-round again. The Park Service has established a viewing area for the public on weekends so as not to disturb the seals or place humans in danger.

The message the Elephant Seals have brought through their Occupy Point Reyes escapade is that despite stunts over government “shutdowns” that Congress and now our President have pulled, Mother Nature is in charge of this land. We can go on strike if we want, but she keeps going about her business.

Sources:
Associated Press, Elephant Seals Take Over California Beach During Shutdown.
US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): Species Directory, Northern Elephant Seal.

Year of the Pig

February 8, 2019

Elephant seals next week.

The Chinese Year of the Pig began this week. The pig in Chinese astrology is a calm, prosperous, gentle animal, generous and focused. Here are some brief horoscopes for Year of the Pig.

A roundup of world folktales about pigs can be found here.

A four-part article I wrote several years ago about the sow in Western mythology is here.

I read once that you’re not supposed to clean the house for the first three days of the Chinese New Year, so as not to clean out the good luck. It seemed like good advice, and I started applying it to the Gregorian new year as well. What a boon to have days when you not only don’t clean, you don’t feel like you should be cleaning. I decided that the no-cleaning days should apply to Halloween (the Celtic new year) and Yule (the Heathen new year). Then I started celebrating Diwali and Rosh Hashana, by not cleaning of course. Now if I don’t feel like cleaning, I can say “It’s New Year’s somewhere.”

Excerpt from Divining with Animal Guides: Sherit’s Bid for Power

February 1, 2019


The journey of magician and apprentice to the cave is a ruse for presenting bare-bones accounts of Egyptian wizardry. To my knowledge the spells used by Thoth magicians to enliven their pieces of wax have not been written down and translated, though I have no doubt that even today there are people claiming to have the authentic Egyptian incantation, for a price.

One would think that the last thing on Sendjehuti’s mind as his sandals crunched over the desert floor was attack by crocodile. He was far from any body of water and he was headed west, away from the river. Still, crocodiles were in his thoughts. He was not afraid of any beast, but he had to be sensitive to the fears of others.

At the top of the hill he waited for the child, who was scrambling to keep up with him. Further back, her panting nurse paused and forced air into her stout body. “Are you certain you are prepared to proceed with this, Sherit?” he asked, giving her a final opportunity to turn around. The girl had been named for him, but they called her Sherit.

“Of course I am prepared!” the girl replied, indignant. “I have been repeating those words in my mind for days. I have memorized my lesson. How could you think I would be thoughtless about something you have told me to do?”

“No, I did not think you would be disobedient,” he soothed. “But perhaps you are frightened. What we are doing today is extraordinary. Many adults would decline this opportunity without hesitation, and you still wear a child’s hairstyle. There is no dishonor in retreating.”

“I am not frightened,” replied Sherit, now more incredulous than angry. “I am with you.”

“You must think of me, as well as yourself. What if you lose your nerve and this becomes a disaster? People will say it was my fault for leading you into this. They will say I am a poor father and do not deserve any children.”

The child laughed. “If anyone finds the nerve to criticize you, they had better watch out. You will send a pair of leopards to tear off their heads. You will point their severed heads toward their bodies and make their mouths tell their hearts how foolish they are.”

Sendjehuti snorted as he walked on. Yet he knew the nurse Khenty-Nebet, breathing heavily behind them, had an opinion of his capabilities not much less fantastic than his daughter’s.

“After today, people will call me Sobek-Sherit, instead of Sherit,” the child continued.

“You will never get a husband with that name,” he teased.

She appeared to consider this. “It will be a secret name, and you and Seti will call me that.”

Wer-Seti was Sendjehuti’s nephew and the reason for this expedition. A very bright boy with more persuasiveness than diligence, Wer-Seti had instigated a campaign to get pulled from his school so he could be tutored by his famous uncle. Finding the boy filled with more abstract curiosity than true commitment, Sendjehuti had brought his daughter into the lessons to spur Wer-Seti into making an effort. Now Sendjehuti suspected his nephew of pretending to be slow in order to prolong the agreeable companionship of his cousin.

“Hurry up Nebet!” Sherit squealed behind him. “We’re going to be late for the crocodiles.” Khenty-Nebet groaned.

Eventually they reached the mouth of the small cave. He was surprised to see a lamp burning, although no one appeared to be around. He had brought materials for starting a fire, but this would make things easier. Sendjehuti reached in the pouch around his waist for a vial of olive oil and a flax wick, which he placed in a second vessel.

“Do they leave these pretty lamps here for anyone to steal?” asked Sherit.

Sendjehuti chuckled. Several magicians in his coterie used this cave. Outsiders who knew about this place would sooner raid the Pharaoh’s tomb than dare to trespass here. He lit the second lamp and examined the outer room, which fortunately was free of debris.

Khenty-Nebet had arrived and her breathing had returned to normal. “I will wait here while the two of you go inside,” she said.

Sendjehuti said nothing for several seconds. “If that is your choice,” he replied coldly. He would make sure to tell his wife of the nurse’s dereliction of duty. The girl was safe with him, but still.

Khenty-Nebet appeared to deliberate over whether she was more frightened of the crocodiles or of him. “I will stay here while you are inside,” she repeated.

“Wait with Khenty-Nebet,” he told Sherit, then made a more thorough inspection of the cave. In the second room a large animal scurried away in a furry blur. He had no idea what it was, and it escaped into a crevice too tight for him to squeeze through. He returned to the outer room and motioned for Sherit to follow him.

At the second entrance she hesitated. “Father, what if I don’t say the words right?”

He looked back at her. “You know the words. You told me earlier, remember?”

“Yes, but what if I don’t say them right? What if the crocodile says, ‘You are only a small girl; I don’t have to listen to you’?”

“Come in here and sit down,” he said. The room was small, dominated by a pool of water the diameter of a large snake. Writing covered the walls and the girl examined the dedications with interest, even through her fear. She could read almost as well as Wer-Seti. This lesson had been planned for the boy’s benefit, but he had begged off this morning with a stomachache.

“Nefert-Satendjehuti,” he addressed her, using her real name. “You are growing up and growing older, and before long you will be grown. You will untie that braid and wear your hair like a woman and you will have a woman’s duties. Eventually you will die. You will make that terrifying journey that no one escapes. At the gate to the world below the Great Ibis will be standing, and he will ask you to justify your bid for a second life.

“If you are allowed to pass there will be dangerous animals for you to confront: snakes, demon wildcats, and crocodiles. There is a snake down there so huge he has swallowed a donkey. There is a big-headed cat with putrid flesh dripping from her teeth and breath that will make your eyes water. There are menacing crocodiles, eight of them, surrounding you from every direction. They will flap their tails and try to capsize your boat, so they can tear your body in pieces.

“And what will you say? Will you say the words to make them slink away or will you say, ‘I am just a small girl’? Will you command them to leave you alone or will you say, ‘I don’t know how to say the words’? The crocodiles will laugh at you. They will yell, ‘Where is your braid, little girl?’ They will yell, ‘Let us say the words.’ They will take your arms, your legs, your head, and your heart far underwater to dissolve into oblivion. Is that what you are waiting for? Is that what is going to happen to you?”

A chastened Nefert-Satendjehuti put her fingers on her eyes. “No, I will not let that happen to me.”

Sendjehuti took a piece of dyed wax from his pouch and massaged it in his palm to make it pliable. He gave the beast he was molding a long fat tail and pronounced spines, not neglecting the teeth and claws. The eyes he made larger than a typical crocodile, but they rested on top of the head in a realistic fashion. He turned toward the pool and in the old language pronounced loudly:

Out of the waters of Nun, hear your name Bulging Blinker
Out of the waters of Nun, turn your head to my voice
Out of the waters of Nun, roll your body and recognize yourself
Out of the waters of Nun, come to this place now
You must obey me, because I created you
You must obey me, because I bestowed your name
You must obey me, because I call you now


He plunked the figure into the water. As the droplets splashed upward they erupted into an enormous creature, far larger than the pool. He had not anticipated making the crocodile this huge. The child emitted a high-pitched scream. The crocodile raised his head, opened his mouth, and let loose a long bellowing roar. As the sound died away, he heard the thin, wavering voice of Nefert-Satendjehuti:

Back in the waters of Nun, Bulging Blinker
Back in the waters of Nun, you cannot molest me


As she spoke her voice gained volume.

Back in the waters of Nun, return to your abyss
Back in the waters of Nun, I command you to go
Back to the waters of Nun, I thrust a spear to your head
Back to the waters of Nun, retreat from my attack
You must obey me, because I am the one who commands you
You must obey me, because that is the way of Maat
You must obey me, because Thoth has written it so

The crocodile sighed and disappeared. There was a soft plop like a drop of water. Nefert-Satendjehuti put her arms around her father tight.

He held her a long while. The girl had performed surprisingly well; he had been sure when he saw the crocodile’s size that he would have to take over.

Eventually they heard a muffled sound outside the cave. Khenty-Nebet. “Go and tell her you’re all right,” he whispered.

The child scampered off and he followed, more slowly. At the exit from the inner chamber he raised his lamp to make sure he hadn’t left anything. From behind the dark crevice two eyes shone back at him.

Outside the nurse looked as though she had tussled with a crocodile herself. “Oh how great is the protection of the Two Ladies,” she wailed. “I thought that child had been eaten alive.”

“Nebet, I was fine the whole time,” Sherit protested.

Sendjehuti did not speak but began trekking quickly back to the village, leaving the two scrambling to catch up with him. He heard Sherit tell her nurse, “Nebet when we come here next time you will have to go inside. There is beautiful writing all over the walls.” He sighed with resignation. The girl had gotten a taste of power, and there was no possibility that the lessons were going to stop now, even if he succeeded in sending that lazy Wer-Seti back to school. He felt like he had been tricked into making his daughter his apprentice. He wondered if his nephew had masterminded the whole scenario, then wondered if he was giving the boy too much credit for guile.

He stopped and gave his daughter time to catch up. “Sherit, I think you know that you recited your spell today in an exemplary manner. Your speech was flawless. You did well.”

The girl responded with a grin. “I was not certain of that until you said so.”

He teased her gently. “I think you should make your mouth tell your heart how foolish you were, when you hesitated before the cave.”

She was silent for several seconds, then decided to acknowledge his point. “My heart, you must always remember that you have the ability to overcome the evil crocodiles. They can never harm you now.”

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