Defining Ourselves

March 8, 2012

Abigail Adams, 1766 (Benjamin Blythe)
I am taking a break from the broom this week. In honor of Women’s History Month, I wanted to post something about American women’s political history as it relates to worship.

Women have not always been women. We’ve been (among other things) wenches, maidens, girls, damsels and, of course, ladies. These words have usually referred to status as well as gender, but whatever her status, the definition of the word and the word itself was one in which the poor wench had no voice.

Abigail Adams, first lady to the second president of the United States, addressed the topic of women’s voices in 1776, as the principles of the new nation were being formed. In a letter to her husband she admonished, “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation.” The use of “ladies” in such a strongly worded feminist statement sounds jarring, but “lady” was the word in vogue at the time. “Woman” was impolite or dehumanizing, implying low status, referring to bodies and therefore vaguely acknowledging sex. “Lady” was the genteel, civilized, respectable, well-mannered ideal.

Seventy-five years later, the first wave of American feminists rejected the word “lady” as a construct imposed by men, affirming instead the word “woman.” This took the definition of the female sex away from the realm of behavior, putting it back on the body and enabling women to do unladylike things. Even labor organizer Mary “Mother” Jones, who had her own disagreements with feminists, got the importance of this when she admonished young women, “No matter what the fight, don’t be ladylike. God almighty made women, and the Rockefeller gang of thieves made the ladies.”
Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, 1902 (Bertha Howell)


In the second wave of feminism, beginning in the late 1960’s, women reaffirmed themselves as women, pushing back against the “lady” and “girl” monikers and celebrating the being and the body that God almighty made, only this time we called her “Goddess.” “Lady” was increasingly being limited to a polite means of addressing a female stranger (although “gentleman” was rarely used in this context). “Hey lady! Zip up your purse–you’re in New York!” a man yelled at me once. The upper class connotations of “lady” had long been a point of discomfort in a society that rejected the idea of class in principle, if not in practice. The word “lady” continued to be embraced by conservative women as an affirmation of the old male-imposed ideals or even as a code word for anti-feminist. The eighties street theatre group “Ladies Against Women” parodied these anti-feminist ladies.

For all its baggage of snobbery and oppression, the word “lady” remains ensconced in certain pagan traditions, particularly those that are an offshoot of British traditional witchcraft. The most conservative traditions worship a “Lord and Lady,” not a “God and Goddess,” and the high priestess may be addressed in circle as “lady.” A woman who has completed the highest level of training may also be addressed as lady. Once in awhile, a high priestess will publish a book under a pen name of Lady SomethingOrOther, but the title is not used outside of Craft business.

Hungarian-born Dianic leader Z Budapest tried unsuccessfully to persuade Dianic priestesses to accept the word “lady” in sacred context, arguing that the word originally meant “maker of the loaf” and has not always been a label of oppression. In feminist circles, resistance was too high to continue this traditional form of reference. For Dianics the word “woman” continues to be preferred, a way of affirming that we are not to be defined by outside forces.

The Witch’s Broom, part II

March 2, 2012

Birch bundles for making "besoms"--traditional witch brooms. Photo by Colin Grice.

Last week I talked about the handle of the broom, which is usually made of ash. Ash wood represents Yggdrasil, the World-Tree of Germanic lore, and symbolizes nourishment, health and all-around good luck.

The brush part of the broom is traditionally made with birch twigs. Birch is a tree of purification, also associated with death and ancestors. Gentle flagellation with birch twigs is used in some purification rituals to drive pollution out of the body. In old-style Swedish saunas, people emerge from the heat, roll in the snow, then are lightly beaten with birch twigs. The sauna is still used for physical purification, but it was once used for spiritual and emotional cleansing as well.

The broom is used at the very beginning of ritual to cleanse the energies in the area of worship. The broom does not sweep or touch the floor but is held above the head with two hands as the priestess walks the perimeter of the ceremonial space. Since it drives away impure energies, the broom can be used as a guardian for the doorway to a ritual space. The broom may also be used in more aggressive banishing rituals to drive out negativity. Routine purification for ritual preparation is done with feathers or fans, but the broom may be passed over the body in situations requiring more extreme cleansing, such as disease or trauma. The broom was used in purification ceremonies following childbirth back when infant and maternal mortality was higher due to bacterial infections.

The birch twigs are bound to the traditional witch broom with strips of willow bark. White willow bark is a widely used anodyne, from which aspirin was originally synthesized. Willow is sacred to Hecate, a patron goddess of witches, and is associated with water and the moon.

In folklore there are many taboos about brooms. I view these taboos as a reminder of the power of the broom, a power that must be wielded with caution.

Still to come: Marriage and the Broom plus Astral Travel.


Sources:

Campanelli, Pauline. Wheel of the Year: Living the Magical Life. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1990.

Cooper, D. Jason. Using the Runes. Welllingborough, England: Aquarian Press, 1986.

Grimassi, Raven. Old World Witchcraft: Ancient Ways for Modern Days. San Francisco: Weiser Books, 2011.

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.

The Witch’s Broom, part I

February 24, 2012

Helen Hwang and others at the Mago Circle have been sharing ideas about the sacred broom, and I felt inspired to do a bit of research regarding the use of this magical tool in Western witchcraft. Quickly pulling books off my shelf, I soon had a pile of information that was far too extensive for a blog post. I think I’ll stay with this topic for a few weeks, however, and approach a piece of the subject each week from a different perspective.

The first thing that we have to grapple with when we talk about the broom as a magical tool is that the sacred broom is not really a broom, not in the way it is commonly understood as a utensil for sweeping debris off the floor. So what is it? Is it the act of sweeping that makes the broom magical? Is it a cleaning application in the realm of etheric energies? Is it some quality in the materials sewn into the part that sweeps? Is it some quality in the handle? Does it relate to the broom’s relationship to the house? As we will see, all of these things play into the magical power of the broom.

When we talk about witches riding their brooms, the cliched expression is “riding on their broomsticks.” Yet we don’t ordinarily refer to the handle of the broom in other contexts. For example, if I wanted someone to pass a broom to me, I would say, “hand me the broom,” not “hand me the broomstick.” Magically speaking, the stick in broomstick warrants examination.

Witches in animal form on a riding pole. From a 15th century French witch-hunting manual.
In Witchcraft for Tomorrow Gardnerian priestess Doreen Valiente says,

The wand is the magical weapon of invocation; but among witches it sometimes took the form of the riding pole, upon which they performed the traditional jumping dance to make the crops grow tall. This dance was probably the origin of the idea that witches used broomsticks or staffs to fly through the air upon….

To dance over the ground with a pole or staff between the legs is an obvious phallic gesture of the old fertility rites. Hence the end of the riding pole was often carved in the shape of a phallus. This, however, marked the staff as an obvious magical object, an adjunct of the Old Religion that was dangerous to have leaning against one’s cottage wall in the times of persecution. So the phallic riding pole had its carved end disguised with a bunch of twigs and became the witch’s broomstick.



Despite (or because of) its phallic symbolism, the broom is traditionally a woman’s magical tool, although Radmir Ristic in Balkan Traditional Witchcraft says there was at one time a type of broom associated with threshing that men used. The type of wood used in the handle influences the magic. Ash, the World Tree in Germanic lore, is the most common traditional wood, but there are no hard and fast rules here.

The broom in the photograph is my own broom. It is a handmade broom given to me as a gift. Instead of a phallic tip, there is the face of a bearded man carved into the handle. The wood is mesquite, which is the tree witches in the Sonora Desert commonly use for magical implements. It is a medium sized, thorny tree with hard wood and very tiny leaves. The flowers, like the wood, are highly aromatic and attract legions of bees. The honey has a strong distinctive flavor. Mesquite produces pods that can be ground into flour or boiled to make a sweet thick beverage. Since the mesquite tree produces sweet abundance in a tough environment, it brings a life-giving, sustaining quality to the broom magic, similar to the wood from the World Tree.

My next installment of this series will discuss the “sweepy” part of the broom.


Sources

Ristic, Radomir. Balkan Traditional Witchcraft. Translated by Michael C. Carter, Jr. Los Angeles: Pendraig Publishers, 2009.
Valiente, Doreen. Witchcraft for Tomorrow. Custer, WA: Phoenix Publishing, 1987.

Good Morning, Little Dove

February 17, 2012

Two Mourning Doves
Mourning Doves. Photo by R.L. Sivaprasad.

The Iseum (space of worship) chartered through me by The Fellowship of Isis is called The Temple of the Doves. Why doves? The dove is one of the feathery creatures most beloved of the goddess, and a particular favorite of a divinity close to my heart: the goddess Ishtar.

Reverence for the dove is ancient and enduring, possibly extending back to the Stone Age. According to Marija Gimbutas, “Small birds were sculpted, engraved, and painted throughout prehistory. In Minoan Crete they appear perching on shrines, pillars, and the Goddess’s head. Unfortunately, it is not possible to recognize the species of birds portrayed, except in a very few cases.” Since doves and other pigeons like to roost in large buildings, and the first building complexes were places of worship, the religious significance of the dove may have grown up around the temple. Devotees would have assumed the doves came to bring messages from the sky gods or to carry prayers back to them. These doves would not have been exclusively the subjects and messengers of any god in particular, instead serving the deity of the temple where they lived.

As we move from decayed artifacts to religious writing, the sacred role of doves becomes less obscure. Sumerian hymns refer to doves as temple inhabitants and the dove plays an important role in both the Babylonian and Hebrew accounts of the Great Flood. Doves and other pigeons were commonly sacrificed in Mesopotamia, the Levant and (to a lesser extent) Egypt. Dove sacrifice was particularly important in early Judaism, and doves are the most frequently appearing birds in the Old Testament. Doves would have been sacrificial candidates due to their value (they were used for food and fertilizer) and their easy availabilty, but their temple association was probably a key component. The demand for sacrificial doves was so high that, inconceivable as it sounds, doves and other pigeons were actually bred in large numbers for the temples.

Scholars believe that the dove association with the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar came late, which fits with my surmise that doves originally served many mistresses. Astarte, who is a fertility goddess like Ishtar, had an extensive cult throughout the Levant and is unquestionably linked with doves. Today it is the dove, rather than the original lion, that goddess worshippers most often associate with Ishtar. The dove’s plump, curving features, her gurgling coos and her soft, sweet melodies carry a voluptuous aura which naturally evokes this goddess of sexual love.

The early Christian sects, who worshipped a feminine form of wisdom they called Sophia, linked Sophia with the white dove, also one of Aphrodite’s many animal totems. Recognition of Sophia withered under patriarchal Christianity, though her worship has been revived in some of the more liberal churches. Her dove emblem continues as the symbol of the Holy Ghost.

Doves have always been close personal friends of mine. As a child, I would sit in my room listening to the mourning doves on the wires outside my window, and it felt like they were speaking to my heart. Even today, I think their music is one of the most beautiful and soothing sounds in nature.


Sources

Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.
Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989.
MacKenzie, Donald A. Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915. Sacred Texts.
Walker, Barbara. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985.


More information about the pigeon family here.

It’s Witchcraft

February 12, 2012



Ol’ Blue Eyes Sinatra

Song by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh

It’s such an ancient pitch
But one I wouldn’t switch
Cause there’s no nicer witch than you

The Divine Woodpecker

February 10, 2012

Gilded Flicker
Gilded Flicker. Photo by Glenn Seplak.

One of the most startling experiences for people new to the Sonora Desert is the loud metallic rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat that rattles the early mornings. It sounds like a machine gun. It’s made by Mars, the god of war, in his woodpecker form.

When I first moved to the desert, the earliest thought that would enter my drowsy morning brain was, “Those stupid woodpeckers. They don’t know the difference between a tree and a heating vent.” But when you decide people or animals are doing something because they’re stupid, it’s usually because you yourself are ignorant. Desert Gilded Woodpeckers love those aluminium roof vents because they make a loud noise. Mars is also the god of metal. And they’re not looking for battle; they’re showing off for the girls. Woodpeckers make noises to signal that they’re looking for a mate. Or they’re defining territory. Or they’re drumming for some other reason, but at any rate the whole purpose is to make the biggest racket possible. They think that’s really cool. In time the rattling becomes like the coyote chorus: one of those familiar comforting sounds of the desert.

Mars was not, originally, the god of war. He was the father-god who brought bread to the divine Roman twins while their wolf-mother nursed them. Male woodpeckers do most of the work scraping out the family home, and they help incubate eggs and care for the young. A woodpecker god would naturally be the archetype for the nurturing male.

Robert Graves agrees that Mars was not originally a war god, calling him a “Spring-Dionysus” figure. During the Greco-Roman era, Mars became conflated with the Greek Ares, who according to Graves was originally a Thracian god given the hateful “war god” moniker as a reflection of Athenian attitudes toward the Thracians. Classical Greeks had a more ambivalent attitude toward war than Romans of the early Common Era, viewing war as a threat to prosperity rather than a means of sustaining it.

Properly speaking, no deity is a war deity, or else they all are. When people go to war, they invoke their protective deity to aid them in the battle, be it Athena or Mars or Andraste. I’ve seen pictures of rebels with the Virgin Mary painted on their rifle butts, and we certainly wouldn’t call her a warrior goddess. In glossaries a good three-quarters of the Celtic goddesses are identified as warrior goddesses, but this mostly reflects the understanding of the Romans, who focused their studies on the behavior of their Celtic adversaries in war.

After Mars became conflated with Ares, he gained a great deal of prominence as a war deity in a culture that was by this time centered (and dependent) on military prowess. Still, Mars was also invoked as father and civic leader, reflecting an importance among the Latin tribes that long preceded Rome’s ascendance as a military power. That he was not necessarily seen as a war deity is reflected in the other gods he became conflated with, such as Mars Nodens (for the Celtic healing god Nodens) or Mars Silvanus (for the Roman–possibly Etruscan–god of the countryside).

The modern strict association of Mars with war has affected how we view the planet Mars, the astrological sign of Aries (ruled by Mars), and even the beginning of spring. Michael Jordan says that March is named for the god Mars because of “its violent weather.” We do think of March as violent, but is it really, compared to say, November, when harsh weather begins, or February, when bitter cold can claim toes and noses? Was the March weather violent in Italy 3,000 years ago? When we think of Mars as woodpecker rather than warrior, the association with the first month of spring doesn’t take a lot of thought or empirical data. This is when woodpeckers are dating–and making a lot of racket in the process.

We think of Aries people as combative, but are they really? Do people view Aries, and do Aries view themselves, as combative due to the warrior reputation of Mars? Comparing Aries to woodpeckers, would aggression be interpreted as defense of territory and protection of vulnerable dependents?

We think of the planet Mars as bloody, because it’s red, but is Mars stained with bloodshed or red like the throat, head or wings of the various woodpecker species?

Mars is now retrograde, a phenomenon that only happens every couple of years. For me, retrogrades are times when we review, reflect and re-examine things. Perhaps this is a good time to be rethinking Mars.


Sources

Robert Graves. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin Books, 1960.
Michael Jordan. Encyclopedia of Gods. New York: Facts on File, 1993.


For another unconventional look at Aries, see my post from 2009 from Yellow Birch School.

Why would anyone provide acoustic support for woodpeckers? The folks at this site have a blueprint if you’re interested.

Sometimes the Monkeys Win One

February 9, 2012

A chuckle for those who haven’t seen it yet. Vermont correctional inmates pull an adolescent prank. As a social worker I’ve encountered my share of game players, as well as professionals who became distraught each and every time they were outfoxed. Myself I try not to take it personally and to say, “Oh well, another alcoholic/addict/sociopath tricked me. Isn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last.”