As the veil between the worlds grows thin and we reflect on those who have passed, I wanted to note the passing of three Pagan leaders since the last Hallow’s Eve. I hope this doesn’t become an annual column, but as our religions are maturing I fear that it will be. Lady Olivia Robertson cofounded the Fellowship of Isis in 1976 with her brother Lawrence Durdin-Robertson and her sister-in-law Patricia Durdin-Robertson. She has been an active visionary guide of the Fellowship, which has a worldwide presence of about 26,000 people, and until recently kept an impressive travel schedule. Lady Olivia’s death was especially poignant since for over two decades she was the surviving cofounder of the Fellowship. Lady Olivia passed away on November 14, 2013 at the age of 96.Those who have visited the Isis Oasis Sanctuary in Geyserville, California will remember founder Lady Loreon Vigne, who passed away on July 15. The Isis Oasis has been a Goddess affirming place for Pagans in Northern California to hold retreats and workshops. It is also the home of the Temple of Isis, where the Egyptian mysteries have been reestablished. Lady Loreon was known for her enthusiastic devotion to the goddess Isis. Though the Isis Oasis will continue on, Lady Loreon’s presence will be missed. Margot Adler is known to millions as a popular journalist and radio personality for National Public Radio, but to Pagans she is recognized primarily for her 1979 book Drawing Down the Moon. This groundbreaking book introduced the world to the breadth and diversity of the modern Pagan movement and was especially important in connecting Pagans at a time when we were mostly hidden from each other. She died on July 28 in New York City.Blessings and gratitude these important mothers of our religions.
Review: Starcat’s Corner: Essays on Pagan Livingby N. Starcat ShieldsMoon Books, 2013.A friend called me on the phone awhile back, excited about some people she had met on an airplane. “They had a little girl who was named – what’s the name of your cat again?”“Samhain?” I said.“Yeah that’s right, Samhain. They had a two-year-old girl who was named the same name as your cat. I never heard that word in my life before I met your cat, and now I’m hearing it a second time.”“Oh, so those people were witches,” I said.“What do you mean, witches?”“You know, witches. You’ve been to ritual with me and you know what a witch is. Samhain is Irish for Halloween, and who’s going to name their kid Halloween besides a witch?”“But no, they couldn’t have been witches,” she replied. “These were normal people.”So I guess I’m not “normal people,” I thought to myself. Leaving aside that troublesome revelation, this conversation illustrates the preconceptions people continue to hold about witches, even people who understand that we are followers of an Earth-based religion, and we don’t worship the devil, and we fly around on airplanes, not brooms. Witches are still surrounded by an aura of differentness, considered more foreign than an inhabitant of the most secluded village on Earth, unless that villager also happens to be a witch. We can be glamorous, or spooky, or impenetrable, but at any rate we are not normal.These stereotypes are silly. A witch has far more in common with her fellow Earth citizens than most people imagine. This is beautifully illustrated in N. Starcat Shields’ book Starcat’s Corner: Essays on Pagan Living. In this collection of short essays spanning ten years we follow Starcat as she confronts the challenges of living, some of which are endemic to American life at the turn of the millennium and others which are timeless. She struggles with being a parent, reacting to a natural disaster, hanging out at the hospital while a loved one receives critical medical care. She searches for meaningful employment, makes important financial decisions, visits the chiropractor, and accepts the loss of a beloved animal companion. Her perspective on all of these things is very different from that of a Methodist or a Mormon, not to mention that of an atheist, but she successfully weathers the crises, complexities and banalities of living with decision-making processes that most would consider unconventional.Starcat says that the genesis of these essays was a question that was posed at Vermont Witch Camp: “How do you live your earth-based spirituality, day in and day out, particularly in a culture that doesn’t share your values?” While the question became the premise for an interesting book, I have to say that I don’t think much of the question itself. To me it evokes too much of the politically correct smugness I have noted in some Pagan circles: the idea that we are the good people with the high values surrounded by a sea of the unenlightened who don’t share those values. If you’ve spent a lot of time in different Pagan communities, you know what I’m talking about.“How could witches be judgmental?” my friend who doesn’t think witches can be normal asks me incredulously. The implication behind the question is that as people near the bottom of the scorn pile, perhaps only a step above criminals, we witches should know better. I could provide a list of reading material showing that in this respect, as well as in any other, witches are completely normal.But Starcat’s Corner is not like that, as she reveals herself to be more interested in helping people than judging them. She is the kind of witch we all want to be. I’ll close this review with a short excerpt from Starcat’s Corner:
The negative, or shadow side, of seeking is that we may become perpetual students. Either we absorb some of the teachings and then move on, never content to delve deeply into a particular source of wisdom, or perhaps we continue to study one area so intently that our life becomes imbalanced. We are so focused on the seeking itself that we never allow ourselves to come to any conclusions about what we believe. In order to avoid being stuck in this mode, you might devote yourself to a particular set of teachings for a year and a day. If you are studying on your own, write an article or research paper that encompasses what you’ve been learning. These actions will help you shift from a mode of constant movement and passive receiving into a place of more depth and active sharing.The positive part of seeking is the innocence of the beginner’s mind. In yoga, we are encouraged to approach each pose, or asana, as if it is the first time we have practiced it. This keeps the mind on the present moment. If we are truly seeking and open to finding wisdom, we are never jaded or cynical. We are able to take in that which we see, fully and with an open mind and heart.
At the risk of preaching to the choir this week, I want to talk about the meaning of Halloween. Over the past few years I have been getting more and more calls-to-action over two issues associated with Halloween as it is commonly celebrated: the adoption of stereotypic American Indian trick-or-treat costumes and the borrowing of sugar skulls from Mexican American Dia de los Muertos ceremonies. While I agree with objections raised to these two practices, I nonetheless find the slant of this activism troubling. By objecting only to offensive elements within the sacrilegious perversion of this holy day, this activism ends up reinforcing the perverted narrative. Conversely, by bringing Halloween back in harmony with its roots, these and other offensive elements are banished.Let’s look at the true meaning of the holiday. Halloween is a shortened version of All Hollows Eve, an ancient Celtic holiday of reverence for ancestors. It is still celebrated as such by Druids and Witches throughout the world. The day is usually celebrated between October 30 and November 2, depending on the religious tradition and the country. (Some Druids mark the full moon closest to November 1.) Many centuries ago the Catholic Church, in order to discourage the Pagan rites, co-opted the holiday as All Souls Day, and within the Catholic Church it retained much of its former purpose of remembering departed souls. All Souls Day has been an important holiday wherever there has been a strong Celtic influence, not only in the “Celtic countries” of the British Isles, but in France, Spain, and even parts of Germany. Because of the Aztec influence, the Mexican holiday retained even more of its original significance while incorporating elements of indigenous Mesoamerican belief.The ancient Celts believed that during the period marked by Halloween the separation between the worlds of the living and the dead became more porous. Thus this was an ideal time to contact and make obeisance to departed relatives. This was also a time when troubled spirits too wretched to find their way to the Celtic paradise might cause some mischief for the living. To help these troubled spirits, children would enact their plight by going from house to house in beggars’ garb asking for a small token of pity. The phrase “trick-or-treat” reminded the householder that unmollified spirits might become mischievous. The enactment of this ritual was believed to bring some solace to the wretched souls. Some witches even say the drama helped spirits to pass through.Because all kinds of spirits were wandering on Halloween, houses needed special protection on this night. Talismans were put out to discourage unwelcome intrusions. This is the source of today’s jack-o’-lantern. While children were believed to have some innate protection from ghostly mischief, adults who wandered out on this night sometimes wore masks to scare away the ghouls.Let’s take a look now at today’s Halloween celebrations in light of the original religious focus. The trick-or-treat “beggars night” activities are closest to the original meaning, but they have become somewhat perverted. The only appropriate Halloween costume for a beggar on beggars’ night would be that of a beggar ghost. Houses can have jack-o’-lanterns or other talismans about them, but decorations should not be doing anything to create a “creepy” ambience. The idea is to keep the house warm and cheerful and the more mischievous ghosts outside. The welcoming atmosphere indoors also sets the tone for interactions with the ancestors. The haunted house is the antithesis of this. Although Halloween is an important time for Witches, who often use the night to perform psychic work, demeaning stereotypic portrayals of Witches, in costume or in picture, are especially offensive on this core Witches’ holiday.The Halloween party as it is commonly practiced does have some elements of old pagan belief. Bobbing for apples, the dumb supper, and spells to catch a glimpse of a future love interest are examples of activities that have deep roots. The main objection to the Halloween party is the parlor game atmosphere which trivializes the activities. Also, this is not a time for scary ghost stories. The object of the warm cheery gathering is to keep the scariness outside. Scary stories have a universal appeal and probably serve some purpose, but in light of what has already been explained the sacrilege of Halloween slasher movies should be obvious. Imagine for a moment the most sacred Christian or Jewish holidays being given an exploitative, sacrilegious theme. What if Easter produced a slew of apocalyptic flesh eating zombie movies, seeing as Jesus rose from the dead? What if Yom Kippur produced stories on the theme of sadomasochism, seeing as it’s the day of atonement? If the very suggestion of such a takeoff offends you, think about the commercial exploitation of Halloween in light of what the night is really about.You can still celebrate Halloween in a respectful way, even if you are not a Witch or a Druid. Explain to children that Halloween is a time of ghosts, and give them the option of dressing as a sad ghost or a wretched ghost or a whimsical ghost. Save the ballerina and astronaut costumes for a different occasion. If you want to have a Halloween gathering, just keep it cheerful and leave the slasher movies and related themes out of the evening. Tarot cards, harmless spells, and other witchy activities are fine, as long as they are not trivialized. If you simply ask your guests to bring a picture of a departed loved one and come prepared to talk a little about this person, you have right there an nonreligious expression of the true meaning of Halloween.
My familiar Samhain (pronounced SOW-when) is a seven year old blue point Siamese cat. Among Siamese afficionados, she is known as an “applehead,” meaning she has not been bred for the extremely svelte figure favored in cat shows. Her shape is more like the Buddhist temple cats bred for centuries in her native Thailand.One of the many apocryphal legends about this breed recounts that a pair were left by a monk to guard an important Buddhist relic, but the male became restless and set off in search of the human. The female stayed with her entrusted task, focusing so intently on the treasure that her eyes crossed and her tail became kinked. This earned the female Siamese cat the reputation for being the preferred temple guardian.I had decided that I preferred Siamese cats as familiars even before I learned about their importance in Thai Buddhist temples. By “familiar” I mean an animal who assists with spellcasting and clairvoyant work. To be an effective familiar, an animal must have psychic abilities and must also bond closely with her witch companion. Dogs bond easily with humans, but dogs are a bit tricky because some dogs are very psychic while others are entirely flat-footed (flat pawed?) when it comes to contacting the etheric realms. Cats are reliably psychic, unless you get the rare one that’s actually psychotic, but they sometimes bond imperfectly even with a person who treats them well. Horses and birds meet both criteria, but they can pose logistical problems. A Siamese cat will usually bond firmly with one other person, and like all cats will have psychic abilities. There are downsides to choosing a Siamese. They require a great deal of attention and they have high energy levels. If you do not play with your Siamese enough, you will get the “ankle attack.” Getting a second cat as a companion will not solve the problem, since the Siamese bonds closely with one other being, and you want that special one to be yourself. Also there is the talking issue: this is a breed with a loud voice that communicates vocally. Someone once told me that one of the first cat rescue groups focusing on a specific breed formed around the Siamese, because many people are attracted to the look of the breed, then can’t handle the energy level and the constant talking. So if you get a Siamese or Siamese-mix, be sure you understand what you’re getting yourself into.I like the idea of tuning into and bonding with my cat familiar before I actually meet her by trying to discern the name corresponding to her universal soul vibration. I have tried this with two cats now, and I do not think I was able to achieve this. The first time the name Michelle came to me, which I changed to Misha because I thought Michelle was a stupid name for a cat. When I arrived at the house to meet Misha/Michelle, I discovered that the little girl had named this kitten Michelle. Was Michelle the vibration emanating from the kitten’s higher self, or did I just discern the name the kitten was already responding to? With my latest familiar, the name that kept coming to me was Kit, as in Kit Carson. I thought Kit was also a stupid name for a cat. When I arrived to pick up this kitten at the home of the family who bred Siamese cats, I inquired about the name since I wasn’t coming up with anything satisfactory. The lady told me “The children give all the kittens names, often really silly names, but this one they just call Kitten.” I had done it again. Maybe kittens don’t have human names corresponding to their soul vibration. Or maybe they do, and the children didn’t understand “Kitten’s” real name because it was an unfamiliar word. I ended up naming her Samhain, which is Irish for Halloween, because I brought her home with me the day before Halloween.One of the challenging things about having a familiar – and I imagine this holds for all familiars, even the discarnate ones – is that the familiar will try to steal the power of her witch companion. With cats this takes the form of power struggles over magical objects. The altar has been a particular focal point of this struggle with Samhain. Someone suggested that I give Samhain her own altar to defuse the tension, and it seemed like a good idea. Samhain was delighted with having an altar of her own, but this did not take away her fascination with mine. Another power struggle emerged while I was writing my book, Invoking Animal Magic. Samhain kept stealing pages from the book and tearing them up. I responded by giving her a special folder with her own papers, another gift she appreciated and another gift that did not entirely serve its purpose. My latest attempt to shape behavior has been over tarot cards. I like to leave tarot spreads out several days so I can contemplate the cards, but this means Samhain has to be watched carefully. I decided to try giving Samhain mini card readings, and it turns out Samhain, like most narcissists, really really likes having her cards read. But she still can’t be trusted not to mess up mine.Samhain\Kitten is a fascinating multi-talented familiar, and I could easily write a multi-part blogging essay about her. I realize, however, that only literary giants like Doris Lessing or May Sarton can get away with writing whole books about their cats (and having peple read them). But now that I have made this introduction, Samhain will show up from time to time as I discuss my magical work.
Cold and flu season is upon us, and herbalists are writing about garlic, echinacea, mullein, honey, and a host of other beneficial plants. Irish herbalists saw the blessing of the goddess Aine (pronounced ON-ya) as a necessary catalyst in these herbal concoctions. Aine is a fire goddess whose spark makes its circuit throughout the body commencing with every sunrise. Aine often takes the form of a red mare, as in Celtic lore horses are equated with the sun. At Midsummer Aine’s protection for livestock would be invoked by waving torches over animals.Probably due to her fiery nature, Aine appears in stories as a lustful woman with many lovers. She bore many children, and Irish rulers often traced their family lineage to her. She is said to have a stone birthing chair cut into the side of a mountain. Those who sit in this chair become insane, and the insanity is permanent if they repeat this procedure three times. But insanity can also be cured by sitting on Aine’s chair, so perhaps no lapse of sanity is incurable.Like many healing goddesses, Aine has a wrathful side. In one legend she curses her rapist by sucking the skin off his ear and depriving him of his possessions. My guess would be that this is based on an older story related to a broken taboo at Samhain (Halloween). Aine also had a legendary father who was cruel to her. After her escape she became a spinner of sunbeams in the forest (another allusion to her origin as sun goddess) where she tutored wives in the art of slowly debilitating their husbands through herbal interventions. I’m guessing that the debilitated husband story refers to the aging process measured by the movement of the sun, as well as Aine’s role as teacher of herbology.Aine is believed to be the same goddess as Anu, about which little is known aside from her prehistoric monument of twin hills capped with cairns to look like nipples. She has also been equated with Danu, the legendary mother of the Irish gods, which would explain why so many rulers sought to legitimize their reign by claiming to be her descendents.SourcesCeltic Mythology. New Lanark, Scotland: Geddes and Grosset, 1999.
Matthews, Caitlin and John Matthews. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom. Shaftesbury, UK: Element Books, 1994.Matthews, John and Caitlin Matthews. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Myth and Legend. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2004.Monaghan, Patricia. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York: Checkmark Books, 2008.
Sweet apple-tree of delicate bloomThat grows in concealment in the woods,…While my reason had not strayed, I rested by its sideWith a fair gleeful maiden of perfect slender form.
— Black Book of Caermarthen XVII
These words, attributed to Merlin, are part of a spell invoking the aid of the apple tree in defense against a Saxon invasion. The “gleeful maid” refers to the womanly aspect of Nimue (NEE-way), who appears in Welsh romances as Merlin’s apprentice and sometime nemesis. Nimue is the white goddess of the Otherworld who brings sweetness and sometimes death. The apple tree is not so much her symbol as her manifestation. The Celts of the British Isles envisioned the afterlife as an island covered with apple trees in perpetual bloom.The flowers of the apple tree have a heady, pervasive fragrance that attracts legions of bees. The ripe fruit, which also has a strong pleasant odor, is fermented with honey to make traditional mead, the intoxicating gift of this lovely goddess. Trees which attract bees are usually associated with an important goddess, while goddesses associated with sweet-smelling flowers are often death goddesses. (The decaying corpse has a sweet odor.) Goddesses (and gods) associated with death are often revered by the shaman, because divination and magic require moving into incorporeal space. Intoxicating substances are sometimes used as tools for shamanic visioning, and this visioning is compared to a state of intoxication even when substances are not used. Small wonder that Nimue permeates the legends of the great magician Merlin!The apple tree, which is a member of the rose family, originated in central Asia but was cultivated widely in the early agricultural societies. The tree must be grafted to produce a reliable fruit; most apples grown from seed are sour or bitter. It is not known when the first apple was cultivated in Wales. Many assume the apple tree came with the Roman occupation, but this does not appear to be supported. A white flowering crabapple is native to the British Isles, so the legends may have originally grown around this tree. How long apple (or crabapple) trees have been worshiped in the region also cannot be known. The romances were penned by Christians in the seventh through the eleventh centuries, and the Celts absorbed a great deal from pre-Celtic cultures in their settlement areas. The hawthorn might also have been a precursor or stand-in for the apple. In one story Nimue imprisons Merlin in a tower of hawthorn bushes. The hawthorn is closely related to the wild crabapple: both are members of the rose family, both have white flowers, both bear small fruit, and both have thorns. The apple remains an important ingredient of modern witchcraft, especially prominent in Halloween rituals. The fruit is cut through its equator and placed on the altar flesh side up, so the five-pointed star in the center can be seen. This is the source of the sacred pentagram.SourcesMatthew, Caitlin and John. Ladies of the Lake. London: Thorsons, 1992.Meyer, Kuno, trans. Voyage of Bran. From sacred-texts.com. Originally published 1895.Scudder, Vida Dunn. Le Morte d’Arthur of Sir Thomas Malory and Its Sources. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1921.Skene, William F., trans. The Four Ancient Books of Wales. From sacred-texts.com. Originally published 1868.University of Illinois Extension. Apple Facts.