The Linden Prophesy

July 20, 2012


The tree goddess this week is the Latvian Laima (pronounced like the first word in “lima bean”). Her Lithuanian name is Laime. Be careful not to get her confused with the fairy goddess Lauma or the Greek Lamia.

Laima is associated with many trees, but especially the linden; many birds, but especially the cuckoo; and many animals, but especially the cow. Laima is the goddess of birth, fertility, fate and prosperity — goddess qualities that seem to go together. Laima measures the length of the day, the length of a lifespan, the length of a spell of good luck. I have a mental picture of her flying around with a wooden ruler measuring things. (“Baby girl, you are going to be this tall.”)

Large-leaved Linden Tree. Photo by Willow.
The linden is the tree more commonly known as the basswood in the United States and the lime in England. It has soft wood used for musical instruments and a pliable bark used for basket weaving. It is a choice wood for carving. The sweet smelling flowers of the linden are brewed for respiratory and urinary infections. The flowers attract insects, particularly bees, which produce a honey prized for flavor and medicinal qualities. The insects in turn attract birds, as does the linden fruit.

The bird Laima favors is the cuckoo. The reappearance of the Common Cuckoo from her African migration marks the beginning of spring in Europe, and the cuckoo is said to prophesy by her number of calls. According to Marija Gimbutas, “Another folk belief relates that the tree on which the cuckoo sits becomes sacred and imbued with the powers of the goddess. If a person peels a piece of bark or breaks a branch of this tree, he or she will know the cuckoo’s prophesies.”

The cow is the special animal of Laima, also associated with the linden tree. Laima presides over the birth of calves, usually by appearing in the stall as a black snake or a black hen or even a black bug. In one song she appears in the cow stall as a linden tree:

A branchy linden tree grew
In my cattle stall.
This was not a linden tree,
This was Laima of my cows.

Laima produces goats and sheep from her other trees:

All roadsides were covered with Laima’s trees:
From a birch a ewe was born,
From an aspen-tree, a little goat.

It is common in Euro-shamanism for land animals to have a bird form. Here we have sheep and goats with tree forms.

Of course Laima also measures the length of a woman’s pregnancy and presides at the birth of children. She governs the bathhouse and sauna where Latvian women traditionally gave birth. In this role she takes the form of a woman with braided hair bearing linden branches.

Why so swift Mother Laima
With linden twigs in your hand?
To still the tears of a young bride
Who came last year to our land.

Laima can appear as one goddess, three goddesses, or as many as seven. In various aspects she may be given different titles, such as “Cow Laima” or “Fate Laima.” This is interesting in the context of the linden tree, because its trunk often looks like it has multiple trunks fused together. The American Basswood has several distinct trunks rising from a single base. The linden tree exemplifies the idea of the goddess who is many and one.

American Basswood



Sources:

Evans, Erv. “Scientific name Tilia Americana.” North Carolina State University Cooperative Extention.

Forler, Scott. “Linden-Lime-Basswood Honey” The Honey Traveler, 2011.

Gimbutas, Marija. The Living Goddesses. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999.

Motz, Lotte. The Faces of the Goddess. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Nix, Steve. “American Basswood, A Common Tree in North America.” About.com.

Lady of the Sycamore

July 13, 2012

Continuing our exploration of the sacred trees of the goddess, we turn this week to the Egyptian goddess we know by the Greek name of Hathor. I had research to do for this, because I did not know why Hathor carries the title “Lady of the Sycamore” or why she had a shrine of sycamores in her city along the Nile. My first step was to learn more about the sycamore tree, and I quickly discovered that the tree known as “sycamore” in northern climates is unrelated to the sycamore of Africa and the southern Mediterranean. Hathor’s sycamore is the sycamore-fig, the earliest cultivated fig tree. Its fruit is orange-red, rounder than the common fig, and slightly less sweet. The milky juice of the unripened fruit is used medicinally for skin conditions. The fruit and the wasps pollinating the fruit attract a variety of birds. The tree is long-lived and grows along riverbanks to a height of about sixty feet, much larger than the common fig. The sycamore is a generous tree, offering its fruit year round.

Hathor 1400 b.c.e.
The association of the fig with Hathor evokes the idea of fig wine, as Hathor is a goddess of intoxication. Her new year rites were revels of dancing, music and wine, drawing large numbers of participants. Her priestess cult was an ecstatic one, with a strong emphasis on music. As Patricia Monaghan describes her,

…she was the patron of bodily pleasures: the pleasures of sound, in music and song; the joys of the eye, in art, cosmetics, the waving of garlands; the delight of motion in dance and in love; and in all the pleasures of touch.

As her cult spread, Hathor assumed a variety of attributes, even becoming merged with the lion goddess Sekhmet, but she was usually portrayed as a cow, a cow-headed woman, or a woman with cow-horns and moon disk, sometimes suckling her son Ihys (himself a complex deity).

As is sometimes the case with life sustaining goddesses, Hathor is also guardian of the dead. Hathor does not seem to have a “death aspect” or twin, but is the same generous, nourishing goddess in life and death. The spirits of the dead hang on her sycamore trees, and she wanders through the groves offering them fresh water. Sycamore was the preferred wood for sarcophagi, and one tomb painting depicts a sycamore tree with singing birds.

Even before Hathor’s cult became assimilated with others, her mysteries were probably far more complex than we can fathom from this distance. Clive Barrett conjectures:

The association of joy and intoxication on one hand and death and the underworld on the other suggests that her rituals involved some kind of shamanic practices. Divine madness freed her priests or followers from the mundane world, and with the correct training they were able to move onto other planes and walk with the gods.

Deceased king suckling the udder of Hathor.
1200 b.c.e.

Whether the sycamore-fig was ever fermented for Hathor’s rites I was unable to discover through my books and an Internet search. I found that this fig is indeed sometimes fermented into wine, but that it has a vinegary taste that makes it more suitable for medicine than enjoyment. The common fig and the grape, both more suitable for winemaking, had been introduced to Egypt by at least 3000 b.c.e., and there are extensive written records on the production of grape wine. Still, according to Meir Lubetski “The pairing of the sycamore fig and wine was firmly anchored in the cultic practices and in the prevalent landscape of the ancient Egyptians.” He also says that in one funerary ritual the newly deceased king would be fed figs and wine.

The sweeter common fig never supplanted the sycamore-fig as an important staple in the Egyptian diet. Hathor’s cult likewise, though it widened and changed, remained popular long into historical times. We generally think of death goddesses as unyielding of temperament like the Sumerian Ereshkigal, frightening in appearance like the Hindu Kali Ma, or stern and scary like the northern European crone goddesses. The worshipers of Hathor had a beautiful, happy lady with them in death. Small wonder the cult of Hathor was one of the most tenacious the world has seen.


Sources

Barrett, Clive. The Egyptian Gods and Goddesses: The Mythology and Beliefs of Ancient Egypt. London: Aquarian Press, 1992.

Iziko Museums, Figweb.

Lubetski, Meir. “Lot’s Choice: Paradise or Purgatory?” in Biblical, Rabbinical and Medieval Studies, Judit Targarona Borras and Angel Saenz-Badilles, eds. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Academic, 1999.

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

Ray’s Figs website.

Wilson, Hilary. Egyptian Food and Drink. Buckinghamshire, UK: Shire Publications, 2008.

The World Tree

July 6, 2012

At the axis of the worlds there is a tree linking the underworld, the word we live in, and the the ethereal realm of gods and fallen heroes. This is Yggdrasil (IGG-draw-sill), the divine ash tree. The serpent Nidhogg (NEED-hog) nibbles at its roots while an eagle nests in its high branches. The eagle and Nidhogg are sworn enemies, and the squirrel Ratatosk scampers up and down the trunk carrying insults from one to another. Four stags nibble at the lower branches, pruning foliage so Yggdrasil does not grow out of control. At the base of the trunk, on the ground, sit the Norns, the sisters Urd (oord), Verdandi (VAIR-dawn-dee) and Skuld (schooled). They water the roots each day from a pool of white water. Urd is the oldest of the sisters, and some even say the other two are aspects of herself. From her name come the words “earth” and “weird,” which originally meant fate. The Norns set the fate of each child at birth, carving the details in runes on a wooden plank. Those who consult the runes address the Norns before each divination.

From Edith Hamilton’s Mythology:

Beside this root was a well of white water, URDA’S WELL, so holy that none might drink of it. The three NORNS guarded it, who “Allot their lives to the sons of men/And assign to them their fate.” The three were URDA (the Past), VERDANDI (the Present), and SKULD (the Future). Here each day the gods came, passing over the quivering rainbow bridge to sit beside the well and pass judgment on the deeds of men.

The Three Witches from Shakespeares Macbeth, by Daniel Gardner, 1775. They were called “the weyard sisters” in the play, an allusion to the Norns. (Weird at that time meant fate.)
Hamilton is conflating Germanic and Greek myth a bit here. The three fates (Moirae) of the Greeks are spinners in charge of past, present and future. The names of the Norns translate closer to “fate,” “being” and “necessity.” Hamilton does not make it explicit that the gods sit at Urd’s well because they need the authority of the Norns to pass judgment.

The god Odin (OH-dinn) is also associated with the ash, because he hung upside down from Yggdrasil for nine days and nine nights in order to receive the eighteen runes. From a medieval text quoted in D. Jason Cooper, Using the Runes:


I hung from a windswept tree,
I hung there for nine days and nights,
I was gashed, pierced with a spear,
I was an offering made to Odin.
Offered, myself to myself,
On that tree which no man knows,
Or where its roots still run.

The wood of the White Ash is very hard, and so it is often used for tool handles, including magical tools. Recall from previous posts that ash is the preferred wood for the witch’s broom handle.

The ash is also important in Celtic magic, and it’s tempting to delve into the copious amount of material on this tree. I am limiting myself to the connection between the ash and the Norns, however. If there’s anything you want to share about the ash, even if it’s not related to Germanic lore, feel free to leave a comment.


Sources

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

Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. (Reprint) New York: Mentor, 1979.

Littleton, C. Scott (ed). Mythology: The Illustrated Anthology of World Myth and Storytelling. London: Duncan Baird Publishers, 2002.

The Honey Tree

June 29, 2012

Cybele, Rome 50 b.c.e.
photo Marshall Astor

This week’s goddess is Cybele (pronounced kye-bell), whose sacred tree is the pine. Cybele is the earth mother goddess of what is now western Turkey, who had a popular and longstanding cult that eventually spread to Rome. She had a lover named Attis, who was also her grandson, whom she loved very much, and she showered him with gifts and attention. Despite the pampered treatment he enjoyed, Attis eventually became enamored of a nymph, and he could not keep the liaison a secret from Cybele. She was furious, and she tormented him until in madness he tore his genitals from his body. Attis died from his wound under a pine tree.

The Turkish Pine is renowned for its role in production of a type of honey. Aphids feed on the sap of the tree and sweat a sweet substance that attracts swarms of bees. The love of bees for this tree can be compared to the love of Cybele for Attis. Attis’ self-castration is evocative of the bee’s reproduction. When the bee drone has finished copulating with the queen, his organ is torn from his body as he pulls away. The drone then dies of his wounds. The furious torment of Attis by Cybele may have been like the swarming buzz of bees.

At the opening of Cybele’s spring ceremony in Rome, a pine branch was carried into the city to represent Attis. During the week-long ceremony, male initiates to one of her cults would castrate themselves during frenzied dancing (think of bees) and throw their testicles as an offering at the foot of her statue. The worship of Cybele and Attis had a death-and-resurrection theme, with rituals of mourning preceding ecstatic rites celebrating Attis’ rebirth.

From Oskar Seyffert’s Dictionary of Classical Antiquities

Amid tumultuous music, and rites of wildest sorrow, they sought and mourned for Attis in the mountains. On the third day he was found again, the image of the goddess was purified from the contagion of death, and a feast was celebrated as wild as had been the days of sorrow.

From Robert Graves’ The White Goddess

The Goddess is herself a queen bee about whom male drones swarm in midsummer, and as Cybele is often so pictured; the ecstatic self-castration of her priests was a type of the emasculation of the drone by the queen bee in the nuptial act.

Stand of Turkish Pine
photo Sten

I recently ran across a blog entry (which I can’t find again; you’ll have to take my word) maintaining that the worship of Cybele belongs to transwomen and that any others who follow Cybele are wrongfully appropriating her. I have wanted to address this issue of ownership and appropriation in a general way for some time.

Regarding the rites of Cybele: since she had a cult of castrated priests, transwomen have a traditional justification for establishing exclusionary religious practices to this goddess. However, the worship of Cybele, which dates to pre-history, was spread throughout the Mediterranean by Greco-Roman times and included different priesthoods of women, men, and mixed-sex groups, as well as castrated males. There is justification, historically, for persons of any sex or gender to establish a cult of Cybele.

I’ve heard this same sentiment of proprietary worship expressed by women, particularly lesbians, regarding the goddess Diana and the supposed inappropriateness of her worship by men. Diana is well known for her preference for women over men, but she has had celebrated male followers throughout history, among them the Roman king Servius Tullius, who established a famous temple to Diana outside Rome in the sixth century b.c.e.

The objection has been raised by certain Western critics of paganism regarding the affinity of witches for the Hindu goddess Kali-Ma. The argument (which I actually have never heard from any Hindus) is that Kali is a Hindu goddess and therefore should only be worshiped by Hindus.

The hard fact of the matter, however, is that we none of us own our gods. They are promiscuous, meaning they love who they choose to love and extend favors of their own volition to those who please them. You can establish a cult, a circle, a religion or a ceremonial system and include or initiate whoever you want, but worship is ultimately an agreement between the deity and devotee. Nobody can change that. Violating the boundaries of a religious cult is wrong, and willful violations were sometimes punished with death in ancient Greece, but there is a difference between placing boundaries around a practice and placing boundaries around a deity. The goddesses do what they want. Go ask Attis.


Sources

Budapest, Zsuzsanna E. The Grandmother of Time. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989.

Durdin-Robertson, Lawrence. The Year of the Goddess: A Perpetual Calendar of Festivals.Wellingborough, England: The Aquarian Press, 1990.

Graves, Robert. The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1948.

Seyffert, Oskar. Dictionary of Classical Antiquities. Trans. by John Nettleship and J.E. Sandeys. 1882. http://www.archive.org/stream/cu31924028214652/cu31924028214652_djvu.txt

Daphne’s Appeal to Gaia

June 23, 2012

Apollo is usually depicted with a crown of laurel leaves. Roman coin 56 b.c.e. Photo by Classical Numismatic Group.

I have egg on my face. I thought I had scheduled this essay to post yesterday, but for some reason it did not.

As a followup to last week’s quiz, I’ve decided to begin writing about how the goddesses in the quiz are associated with their respective trees. I will be starting with the Greek goddess Daphne.

Daphne was a nymph (a young priestess) of the earth goddess Gaia. She attracted Apollo’s attention when he warned her about the deception of a man named Leucippus, who had dressed in women’s clothing to penetrate her sacred circle. The priestesses made Leucippus strip naked, confirmed the deception and killed him, but Apollo in the meantime had become obsessed with Daphne. She did not return his interest.

Apollo’s ardor was persistent, and Daphne eventually fled in terror. As Apollo gained on her, she called to her mother Gaia to save her from Apollo’s rape. Gaia responded by transforming Daphne into a laurel tree. In remorse Apollo pulled a branch from the tree and vowed he would always wear laurel leaves in remembrance of Daphne. This is why Apollo is usually pictured with a laurel crown, and why a person of high achievement in the arts or another realm of Apollo is said to “receive laurels.”

From Patricia Monaghan’s The Book of Goddesses and Heroines:

A priestess of Gaea, this nymph led secret women’s rituals in celebration of the Earth’s femininity. But the mortal Leucippus tried to penetrate their rituals in female disguise. The all-seeing sun, who had ulterior motives for his action, suggested to the women that they conduct their rituals nude, to be certain that there were no male intruders.

So the mortal was found and destroyed for his sacrilege. Then the sun-god’s motives became clear. He accosted the beautiful priestess and demanded that she sleep with him. She refused. Apollo grew violent. Chasing her, intent on rape, he overpowered Daphne. But she cried out to the goddess she served, Mother Earth, and instantly was transformed into a laurel tree. The repentant Apollo thereafter wore laurel wreaths in his hair and honored the tree as the symbol of inspiration.

From Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths:

Apollo was not invariably successful in love….he pursued Daphne, the mountain nymph, a priestess of Mother Earth, daughter of the river Peneius in Thessaly; but when he overtook her, she cried out to Mother Earth who, in the nick of time, spirited her away to Crete, where she became known as Pasiphae. Mother Earth left a laurel-tree in her place, and from its leaves Apollo made a wreath to console himself.

Graves usually relates the more violent myths to Greek political upheavals:

His pursuit of Daphne the Mountain-nymph, daughter of the river Penius, and priestess of Mother Earth, refers apparently to the Hellenic capture of Tempe, where the goddess Daphoene (“bloody one”) was worshiped by a college of orgiastic laurel-chewing Maenads. After suppressing the college — Plutarch’s account suggests that the priestesses fled to Crete, where the Moon-goddess was called Pasiphae. Apollo took over the laurel which, afterwards, only the Pythoness might chew. Daphoene will have been mare-headed at Tempe, as at Phigalia; Leucippus (“white horse”) was the sacred king of the local horse cult, annually torn in pieces by the wild women….

The Maenads were priestesses who practiced ecstatic rites, often involving drugs or alcohol.

The story of Daphne and Apollo was popular amongst the Greeks and there are many variations. It is interesting, considering the cross-dressing angle of the story, that one of the priestess daughters of Terisias was named after Daphne. (Teresias was the soothsayer famous for transforming from man to woman back to man.) This was probably once a complex myth that we only have in truncated form.

Daphne and Apollo
by Gian Lorenzo Bernini 1625.
Photo by int3gr4te.
The Daphne myth was a fairly common theme in Renaissance art. The lyrics of this song by John Dowland (1563-1625) speak of Apollo’s unrequited desire for Daphne.

Rest awhile you cruel cares,
be not more severe than love.
Beauty kills and beauty spares,
and sweet smiles sad sighs remove:

Laura faire queen of my delight,
Come grant me love in love’s despite,
And if I ever fail to honour thee,
Let this heavenly light I see,
Be as dark as hell to me.

If I speak, my words want weight,
am I mute, my heart doth break.
If I sigh, she fears deceit,
sorrow then for me must speak:

Cruel, unkind, with favour view
The wound that first was made by you,
And if my torments feigned be,
Let this heavenly light I see,
Be as dark as hell to me.

Never hour of pleasing rest,
Shall revive my dying ghost.
Till my soul hath repossess’d
The sweet hope which love hath lost:

Laura redeem the soul that dies,
By fury of they murdering eyes:
And if it prove unkind to thee,
Let this heavenly light I see,
Be as dark as hell to me.



Sources

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

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

Bird Dreams

May 18, 2012

I’m in the middle of production for the audio meditation to accompany my (forthcoming) book Invoking Animal Magic. I’ve been collecting bird sounds to use in the background, and I’ve started to become absorbed by the voices in the woods, ponds and fields. Not categorizing them, exactly, but listening to what they have to say, trying to understand the message in a visceral way. After listening to one loud, lengthy, interactive conversation shortly after dawn, I started to wonder if these little birds were talking about their dreams. What would a bird dream about? It takes a lot of observation to get inside their heads and understand the logic of their mundane lives. In the dream state, where possibilities expand, what would be the expanded horizon of a creature that can already fly? It seems like the dreams of birds would be so far beyond definition that they could not be described in words. Maybe in music….



University of Chicago Medical Center thinks they have solved the question of what birds dream about, but to me it sounds like they’re only describing the problem.

Bird Companions of the Goddess: A quiz

April 12, 2012

Photo by Courtney Johns

How much do you know about the winged companions of the Goddess? If you’ve been following this blog for awhile you’ll recognize many of these. Match the bird in the left column with the European or Middle Eastern goddess (or god) she is frequently associated with.

Owl

Goose

Raven

Falcon

Vulture

Dove

Pelican

Woodpecker

Eagle
Baba Yaga

Morrigan

Mars

Athena

Lugh

Freya

Aphrodite

Astarte

Mut



Answers are here.

Feel free to add other goddess and god associations for these birds in the comments.

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.

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.

Groundhog Day: An American Pagan Holiday

January 27, 2012

Groundhog picture
Mother groundhog eating peanuts. Photo by EIC.

February 2nd is the pagan holiday known as variously as Imbolc, Brigid’s Day, Candlemas and many other names. Many calendars label it “Groundhog’s Day,” referring to the adage that the length of the remaining winter is determined by whether the groundhog sees his shadow (i.e., whether the sun is shining) on this day.

Groundhog Day is an American adaptation of vestigial bear worship, brought to the Pennsylvania colony by early German settlers. Bear worship in central Europe goes back to the Neanderthals, who left Cave Bear skulls in an excavated cavern in Switzerland. Statuettes from the region dedicated to bear goddesses date to the days of the Roman occupation. In Christian times the belief persisted that on Candlemas the bear would waken from her slumber for a winter perambulation. Candlemas is a Christian holiday (the purification of the Virgin Mary) with pagan antecedents across Western Europe. It is the time when the days lengthen noticeably, and people naturally begin to wonder when spring will arrive. If the bear sees her shadow, tradition says, spring will come in another six weeks. Conveniently, this coincides with the vernal equinox, another pagan holiday.

In places where the bear has long been absent, other hibernating animals have been appointed weather-watchers on Candlemas. The hedgehog is a favorite, and the badger is sometimes mentioned. But the hedgehog is absent in North America, and the badger has long retreated to the upper Midwest. In the open farm country of Pennsylvania, the bear also retreated to far off wooded regions, so the groundhog, which proliferates in cleared woodland, became the designated officiant of the winter holiday.

The groundhog is a member of a family called the marmots, found in some form throughout the Northern Hemisphere. The groundhog is a marmot unique to North America. Like the bear, she often stands on two legs, and she hibernates in the winter. Unlike the bear, she is a true hibernator, not stirring at all during the winter by her own inclination. Hence the town mascots, the most famous of which is Punxsutawney Phil, who are prodded awake on the fateful day.

Groundhog Day exemplifies a Euro-pagan tradition adapted successfully to North American soil.