Thursday, July 24, 2014

Where the Edge of the World Meets the Stars

Go forth, find and fix your gaze upon the Corona Borealis in the summer sky.  Think on what it means that Dionysos placed it there for Ariadne. Not as a story, but as truth. And then, speak aloud these words into the starry heavens: “I am going to die.”

I journeyed to my sacred forests and cliffs for the weekend to celebrate a festival for Ariadne as Lady of the Labyrinth.  Within and surrounding the festival, I also intended to experiment with some potential trance postures and dances whose depictions I’d been studying in the Minoan epiphany scenes.  Here I must again credit Bruce Rimell, whose essay and collection of images turned me onto this idea. Unfortunately, I still haven’t been able to track down the article he references about the visionary potential of these particular postures, but I’m familiar with the concept within the work of Felicitas Goodman, a different anthropologist (although Goodman never experimented with Minoan postures that I know of).  On the bright side, I didn’t have too many preconceived notions.

Although it wasn’t the first site I was shooting for, I ended up in the exact same place where my husband and I had privately exchanged vows nearly 3 years ago, and where last year in the worst throes of my grief I experienced one of the most profound omens of my life. The funny thing is that all three times I’ve gotten here it has been sort-of-by-accident, one way or another, which probably says something about the otherness of it.  If this place was a target, I’ve had to shoot sideways to hit it!  And I was grateful I did, especially by the end of this trip,  when I could feel all my accumulated experiences there like so many personal ley-lines, creating a particular affinity with the place and spirits.  It’s hard to put into words, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt a place-relationship so profoundly.  Just thinking about it makes me want to get up and drive back and leave more offerings.  When I was resting there it came to mind what I knew, had already known, but was interesting to think about while I was THERE — that if I have my way, this is where my ashes will end up when I die.  It was a peaceful thought.

cropped landscape

The first night I just focused on setting up camp (in the dark, as usual–the pictures were taken later in the trip) and making myself a rustic dinner on the campfire. Some food and wine offered up to the fire with thanks to the gods and spirits.  Some past visitor had even hung prayer flags high above the fire pit.


The following morning had me feeling a little lonely, emotional and restless.   I’ll elaborate briefly since it’s relevant for what occurred in the ritual later. I felt a temptation to distract myself with something innocuous, and underlying that, I sensed a bubbling up of something terrifying. I had to sit with it and journal to get to something even close to describing it… a fear of meaninglessness, and a subsequent despair.  This fear is multifaceted–affecting the past and future (could all I’ve been through be for nothing? does what comes next in life matter?), and especially to the present, where I no longer have my soul-mate here to give me purpose and reality. That last bit might sound strange, but the loss of the comforting validation offered by such deep companionship sometimes makes me feel like I’m dissolving, or that my actions don’t echo, whether they are menial or ambitious.  Fears are not logical. I didn’t sit with this for too long — I named the fear and then left it for later, because anything else at the moment would have turned into some serious wallowing.

I did some hiking, and found a ton of wild black raspberry bushes.  They seem to adore fallen trees, sloped ground, and plenty of sun.  Once, my husband and I had discovered some maybe a couple miles away from this spot, with the whimsical delight of explorers discovering something entirely novel and new, and we named them “rimberries” and made a pie out of them when we got home.  Every other subsequent time we’d gone camping in the area we had been either too early or too late for them, so this was a neat find, even considering that over 80% of them were not ripe.  So it was, with my husband and ancestors especially in mind, that I spent a good couple hours getting up close and personal with the very thorny, berry-laden whips.  Luckily, I had gloves, though the thorns would still sometimes bite through the leather and constantly snagged my clothes.  I’m nothing if not stubborn.  (I did make a pie with these berries after going back home, and even made my first homemade pie crust to do them justice. I never considered that making something from scratch actually meant the scratches you get from wild-harvesting the ingredients! Hardest I’ve ever worked for a pie, ever.)


Along with the rimberry bushes, there were mullein plants everywhere, and even a sprig or two of blossoming yarrow poking out unobtrusively here and there. There were multiple varieties of pine, of course, and some oak as well. There was a small prickly weed with purple blossoms that caught my attention, maybe because it had a fuzzy bumblebee on it.  I had no idea what it was, but felt compelled to take a picture to see if I could find out later.  

I tried a couple of the postures during the day — the first one in the afternoon and second one at sunset. The first one, described as a “Tense Salute”, involved standing straight with the chest pushed out to create a forward arch to the back, the right hand in a fist or circle with the thumb/index finger side of the fist held up to the forehead, and right elbow pointed out to the right.  The left arm is held down stiffly straight down with the hand next to the thigh, held so the palm curls upward as if holding a ball. The feet stand just a few inches apart, and the head is straight forward.  (Usual method employed with trance postures — grounding and meditation, then invitation & offerings to the spirits, followed by the posture itself for 15 minutes while listening to a recording of drumming or rattling.)  There were some vague impressions to this one, but all in all I feel like I’m missing some context for it, yet I feel pretty certain it’s not a divinatory posture.  More experimentation needed.  More strenuous than expected.  

tense salute

The second one was the baetyl posture.  To be honest, I wasn’t even sure if this one could be considered a trance posture, because there is some movement implied and the inclusion of the stone makes it quite unlike any others I have seen.  But what made me try it anyway was the similarities across different epiphany images.  One leg is slightly forward from the other, the person is always kneeling with one elbow or forearm anchored to the top of the stone, and usually the toes are down on the ground while the heels are pointed up.  Most images show the the person turned to something behind them with the other arm not grounded on the baetyl held out in a “beholding” or beckoning manner, with the palm flat and the forearm at a 45 degree angle (a significant angle in trance postures, for some reason.)  There was also an image with the person still facing and holding onto the baetyl with both hands, which is where the implied movement comes in.  Presumably one begins with both arms on the baetyl and the head  bowed towards it, then moving to look behind and stretching out one arm.  That’s how I tried it.  
baetyl epiphany

I moved back and forth a couple times, switching sides as well.  There were less visuals than sensation (but then again I’m not particularly visual), and I will say that I think the first position of bowing at the baetyl should be the bulk of the posture until one feels moved to stretch behind.  I’ll say that this one was pretty compelling, but I’m not going to go too much into it now, because I want to experiment further. I should add that I blessed the baetyl stone first, with water and floral water, which only seemed right.  Obviously these stones had a religious significance we can only guess at and can’t completely duplicate (especially by picking a stone at random.)  But from what I’ve read and experienced with ecstatic postures, they are like keys or bridges to the spirit world, whether that key is inherent in the body-position itself or the tapping into the cumulative experience of the ancestors who might have used them. So while the full context of the postures and their significance to the ancient cultures who used them may not be recoverable, there’s still plenty of wisdom to be gained from them.

*                              *                              *

negativetrees sunset

As the stars began to come out, I began an ecstatic ritual for Ariadne.

I changed into a skirt, anointed myself with a perfume I only use for Dionysian rituals… I had drawn a 7-circuit labyrinth on a flat stone to use as an altar. I burned honey-rose kyphi… I called upon Ariadne and Dionysos… Used my rattle and my bull horn…  poured out the mead and offered up honey.

The starry crown was directly overhead.  It was my anchor.

I might have wished for a whole crowd of worshippers with me, with some to play music for the dance.  But at least this lone worshipper had headphones.

dancing epiphany

I don’t ever want to forget that feeling as I began to dance on the edge of the world, bare-breasted under the stars, with the endless sky all around me.  I raised my arms to mimic the Minoan dances, arms staggered up with palms out, as if I was mediating the heavens and earth.  What is stationary and puzzling in art translated itself into movement with surprising effortlessness.  And in that moment, the questions which plagued me before, the questions of meaninglessness, were not provided any grand answers — instead, the questions were simply dissolved.  

I thought, “Absurdity is just truth looking for context.”

The wind and the bats flew around me.  The darker the earth got the brighter the sky became, so the pine trees turned into negative space, while the whole sky exploded into a glittering kaleidoscope.

More mead.  More dance.  Where swinging my head around meant turning the stars on their axis.  Where I somehow never tripped in spite of the darkness, in spite of the rocks and uneven ground.  (“The gods will always catch me, the gods are greater than gravity.”)  I remember screaming once, a strangled sound I doubt I’ve ever made before. Then howling.

Things get a bit fuzzy.  I barely remember tree-pulling, that was fun.  I broke from the dance a couple times then returned to it.  I started a fire to have a feast.  At some point I laid down on the ground so I could better see the milky way and stars in their entirety.  Occasionally I came back to the altar and traced the labyrinth with my finger. I honestly don’t even remember deciding to go to bed whenever I finally did.

I do remember that the challenge I put at the beginning was one I felt I was supposed to share, as I experienced it:

Go forth, find and fix your gaze upon the Corona Borealis in the summer sky.  Think on what it means that Dionysos placed it there for Ariadne. Not as a story, but as truth. And then, speak aloud these words into the starry heavens: “I am going to die.”

And then dance…

P.S. Remember that mysterious little thorny plant I mentioned?  It was a bull-thistle.  With a bee.

bullthorn & bee

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Herbfolk Gathering

I figured I'd throw it out there that I plan to attend the HerbFolk Gathering in my home state in September.  I attended last year's event and enjoyed it immensely, and this year's looks to be shaping up to be even better, with longer classes and two nights of dancing and music.  Obviously the focus is on herbalism, but it has a pagan- and animist-friendly feel to it, so if anyone else reading this plans to attend, drop me a line! 


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A Song to Walk Through

I had the pleasure of seeing "Only Lovers Left Alive" at my favorite bar slash movie theater, and I found it incredibly moving, not the least reason being the music.  This one particular song has been taking me elsewhere.  I love when music becomes doorways, even if it's to something uncomfortable.  I can see pretty much the whole soundtrack finding a place for itself in my devotional playlists.

Monday, July 7, 2014

A Storm for Prophets

The Feast of the Dionysian Prophets last Thursday coincided with a surprise blessing - the first monsoon of the season!

I live in the southwest in Arizona, where monsoon season begins sometime after the summer solstice. This is when we get the bulk of our rainfall, although even that has been very little the last few years, as we are in the midst of a drought like other parts of the country.  These storms can come with almost no warning.  And sometimes they have a unpredictable frenzy to them -  coming in bursts that can tear off doors or roofs, knock down light or traffic poles, kick up dust and throw down lightning.  Yeah, unpredictable!

I love it!

I was working graveyard shift that night, and we were only a couple hours in when it started to hit.  My coworkers know SOME measure of my eccentricities, so they were forgiving (if still a bit surprised) when I dropped everything I was doing and ran out into the rain.  I was surrounded by the smell of heat and wet and chaparral and dust as I raised my face to the pelting rain and breathed it all in.  The pure energy of it is indescribable.

My lunch break was fairly early and by that time the rain had stopped but the lightning had not.  I walked further out to get a full view of the sky.  I thought, fuck the fireworks - this is so much better.  And it was!  The lightning was coming from every direction - close, far, sideways and longways.  I don’t think I’ve ever been in the midst of a lightning storm so beautiful and prolific. I was so moved and exhilarated that my prayers were clumsy repetitions.  I poured out the only libation I had, kombucha tea I had made at home.  To Dionysos, to the nymphs, to the heroes.

The energy stayed with me, so after the sun came up and I started for home, I bought a bottle of honey whiskey for offerings and did a short round of The Oracle of the Doors (as created by Sannion) whilst listening to The Doors on shuffle.  (Lyrics that jumped out at me included “whiskey” and “king snake”.)  These were my questions and answers, which seem quite powerful, and I am still pondering.  Comments/interpretations welcome.

What does Dionysos wish me to know?
466 Life goes on absorbing war
341 A wrong gesture. Too long and curious a glance.
442 Your ballroom days are over.

What do my ancestors wish me to know?
543 But can you still recall the time we cried
643 Break on through to the other side
365 Hordes crawl and seep inside

Where do I go next?
555 “Alive!” she cried
343 Blood is the rose of mysterious union
252 river flow, on and on it goes

[To learn more about the Dionysian Prophets honored by The Thiasos of the Starry Bull, of which Jim Morrison is only one, visit The Boukoleon. The thiasos chat on 7/3 on this topic was really good!] 

Arachneia the First: Plants, Dreams, Stars

[The Arachneia is a festival in the Bacchic Orphic tradition I am involved with called The Thiasos of the Starry Bull.  The festival celebrates the weaver Arachne, who is considered a Dionysian heroine, and her transformation into a spider.  You might notice this cross-posted at The Boukoloen, which you should definitely check out for more about the tradition, our deities, and writings from others!]

On Friday night before the Arachneia (being our devotional day for the Dionysian Heroines), I braided/wove some purple yarn into a long bracelet while saying an impromptu prayer to Arachne under the stars. I had initially planned to hang this in a tree once I finished, but instead I was compelled to wear it as a bracelet as a reminder of her throughout the weekend.

Saturday was a bit of a wash.  I got very little sleep that morning in order to transition from my usual graveyard schedule.  I needed to be able to manage a 3 hour drive very early on Sunday morning to attend an herbal festival up north.  I don't know if that's why I ended up dreaming so vividly.  Is it better to dream at night, to receive messages from spirits and gods?  I had honestly never thought of this until now, but I've been doing the better part of my sleeping and dreaming during the day for the last ten years.  For the first time, I'm seriously considering the ramifications of this.  On the flip side, always being awake at night may be a boon for ritual/divinatory work and cultivating altered states of consciousness.  Regardless, on Saturday night, I had a very significant, vivid and lucid dream, which I shall type up just as I journaled it that day:

Dream of [my husband]. Heard him talking and his voice was so resonant and beautiful and familiar that it snapped me into being lucid in the dream. And when I knew, he knew that I knew. I reached for him, touched him, took him all in. I wanted to absorb every bit of him to fill in all the deepest holes of my grief, but the moment was both timeless and exquisitely not-enough at the same time. He was SO present, SO vivid, impossibly so!  How is it that it could be so hard to conjure his image, laugh and voice in waking moments, but here he was perfect?  I can’t remember everything we said, as I write this later in the day and after additional sleep, but if I’d woken right after I think I would have remembered every word. I know that he apologized, and without thinking, I told him it was okay, it’s all okay. I was desperate to reassure him so he could reassure me. (And how could it not be okay in THAT moment? It's the moments without him that are not.) I asked him, “You’re okay, right?” It seemed a silly question (self-evident) as I asked it, but then his lack of answer made it seem more ominous. “Please tell me you’re okay.”  I can’t possibly describe everything in his expression, the way his eyes looked away for the briefest instant as if trying to insinuate a thousand things he wanted to say but could not, a soft desperation and compassion mixed with peaceful resolve.  Yet I knew without being told that I didn’t have to worry about the dream disappearing within seconds (as my lucid dreams usually do.) I knew that this time was given to us. I know he said more, I know we had some time together, maybe even a kiss, but the details are lost -- there’s only the sense of a space of time and basking in his presence. Too soon, he was standing to leave. I asked him to stay, to do something more with me, and he made as if to do so, but then he said he could not - with a strain as if he was being physically pulled elsewhere. I walked with him only a few steps, and I realized as the distance between us grew that he followed two guides whom I hadn’t noticed before. Even in that moment I was grateful for our time but it could never be enough. I called after him, “I will see you again, right? Please tell me I will see you again!” This plea, like the other, went unanswered, and I realized with a pang that as much as this moment was a gift it was probably also a goodbye. 

In my next dream, I looked into a sink and saw what I thought were baby king snakes, although they were too thick and too short. I picked one up to show someone, wondering if it would bite. I looked down and saw a spider crawling on my hand, then fall to the ground and walk away.  The snake bit my finger, but I kept holding it even though it hurt, and starting walking down a flight of stairs...

As you might imagine, the first dream especially colored my entire day and added a bittersweet quality to my solitude.  (The round-trip was a good six hours of driving with only myself and my ipod for company.)  Yet, if someone had offered to go with me I probably would have declined their company.  The bone tablet words which I have been least familiar with seemed an appropriate phrase to focus on today.  "Peace. War. Truth. Lie. Dionysos."  To me, this one is the most stark, because it includes words that we tend to classify as negative - war and lie.  And since I use them as mantras of sorts, a part of me cringes at the inclusion of these words. But I started exploring it anyway.

The Native Herb Festival I attended was nice. It was all held outdoors, and the weather was very pleasant in the shade, unlike the 110 degree weather we've had at home.  The first class I attended was about incense-making.  Much was not new to me, but I did take some inspiration out of it, especially regarding making kyphi.  I used to think of this as overly difficult, but when she made a simple version on the spot, I felt inspired, and had an idea of making a version with wine soaked figs instead of wine soaked raisins (or both) with some pine resin and honey.  And also, using creosote (chaparral) for incense.  As much as I've used that plant for other sacred purposes, and recognized its resinous leaves, I don't know why I haven't done this yet.

The 2nd class was on kitchen witchery. There was less witchery involved, and more about mixing about what we think of us spices versus medicinal herbs in the kitchen.  I took some notes about herbal-infused honeys and simple syrups.  The 3rd class had caught my eye because it mentioned connecting with our ancestors, and it involved a sort of weaving.  It was a workshop for making rope and cord out of yucca leaves, the way that native peoples in this region would have.  It was completely hands on. We started by pounding out a yucca leaf (that had been soaked for several days) with a large smooth rock until all the fibers started to separate, then separating the fibers by hand, and then we were taught a basic weave and how to splice more fibers in so you could make it as long as you like.  It was a lot of work, but at the same time simple and remarkable that we could all end up with at least one strand of cord -- which was insanely strong, by the way!  I'm still delighted by acquiring this random bit of knowledge.  A few people I've mentioned it to have asked if I plan to use this and what for.  Honestly, I have no idea, but I'll figure out something.  It's a scratchy fiber, not unlike hemp, but a friend of mine suggested treating it with beeswax and I think that's a great idea.

At the festival there were a handful of vendors, and the arboretum itself was selling native plants in pots.  I went a little nuts and bought 6.  These were: coyote tobacco (nicotania attenuata), sacred datura, comfrey, Canyon grape (Vitus Arizonica), New Mexico Vervain (verbena mcdougalli), fringed sagebrush (artemesia frigida).

I had no idea there was an Arizona grape, or that you could cultivate datura (usually I see them die off every season in the desert). And how could I resist a nicotania that is named after Coyote?  I fully admit that my patio is getting a bit ridiculous at this point, with all the cactuses and plants.  Everything is in pots because I don't want to plant in the yard of the rental house I'm in.

On my way home, I stopped in Sedona to have dinner. I really wanted to see the stars while I was there, so I killed some time before sunset and then found a good spot to lay some blankets out on a slope, meditate and enjoy the view of Cathedral Rock.  The spot I picked had a spider web next to it, so I figured that was a good sign.  There is also a dead tree there -- a good hanging tree, I think.  I smoked an herbal cigarette and drank a kombucha beer (an actual 7% alcohol kombucha -- brilliant), pouring out a good portion for libations, of course. The edginess I had felt all day had brought me here, to an edge, literally.  In this quiet, numinous place-time, I could let it come to a head. 

A hyperreal state settled in, the sort where my mind rebels at the absurdity of life (absurd! absurd! absurd!) like a knock on the door, one that the things on the periphery start answering to with restless movements.

The stars are slow in their reveal.  But the first sense I make of them is the corona borealis directly overhead.  I had had trouble spotting it this last year, but there it was.  I remember how when I had planned my own version of an Ariadne festival that this was my one confirming marker for placing Her festival sometime just after midsummer, because that is when the crown was highest.  I still feel that Her energy is the strongest in the summer - specifically, the height of summer and the descent into the autumn.

As it got darker, I heard a pack of coyotes yipping in the distance.  I realize my state is a bit more altered than I thought, when I feel that instead of having a sky suspended above me, that I am myself suspended above the sky.  Strapped to the earth for now, I hang, but when the earth lets me go I will fall into the heavens like a pool of water.  I see a shooting star just below the corona, and it seems to last forever.

Peace. War. Truth. Lie. Dionysos.  Eirene. Polemos. Aletheia. Pseudos. Dionysos.  εἰρήνη. πόλεμος. ἀλήθεια. ψεῦδος. Διόνυσος.  In Greek, all strung together, you'll find it actually sounds harmonious.

I had an epiphany a couple months back, and I think I was reading Rhyd Wildermuth's blog at the time, where I realized that even though during much of the last year I have prayed for peace, I am actually not even sure if that's what I want.  I find myself bouncing back and forth between extremes, peaceful and emotional wreck, grounded and then ecstatic, depressed and then inexplicably happy.  Do I want peace?  No, not always.  In the thrill of these extremes, and in-between them, as difficult as the transition can be, is where I find myself, and the god...

The god who is the tension between opposites, the god who is behind the mask and is the mask.

When I eventually go to leave, I almost forget but then remember, to take off the purple bracelet and hang in on a tree with whispered thanks.  I don’t know if my dreams are true, and I still don’t know Arachne too well, and it’s a long drive home alone.  But there are innumerable stars for company.