Sunday, September 30, 2012

Rus in urbe

These are pictures I took last week on a walk down the old railway line (that I wrote about in the post about the Hagley Road). Cities do need their lungs, and greenery can be a reminder that fighting nature is ultimately useless: we can build and build but ultimately the buddleia will take over where the buildings collapse.
I have made this walk in all sorts of conditions: in the dark, and even in the snow. It is a place I go to to reconnect when I need to.
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Friday, September 28, 2012

Holiday

I'm not on holiday yet, I solemnly swear. It feels like I am even though I've still got to work over this weekend. It's my day off today and I've done various little jobs preparatory for a week off. I'm not going anywhere (that would disrupt my elderly cat far too much) but will probably have little outings. I've got in DVDs of The Man from Uncle and am waiting for a book about The Avengers: how I love my old telly.
Even in the midst of this time of returning into my own energy (I just know it'll be far too wet to finish painting the fence, but I really must stick down the loose edges of the bathroom wallpaper before it comes off completely...), I will no doubt do some blog posts. That in itself will give me pleasure. The blog is pushing 1000 page views only a few weeks after starting, and while I was expecting the many visitors from the English-speaking parts of the world, I wasn't expecting to get people from Russia, Germany and Austria reading. Thank you all of you for listening.

Reading the Tarot Aces

I have a problem with reading the aces in the Tarot, my personal method of divination. I have always had this problem, and while it often seems that other people find them perfectly obvious, I cannot be the only person who has this difficulty. I shall therefore consider some ways of looking at the tarot aces. I will be using some of the methods described by Mary K Greer (Twenty-One Ways to Read a Tarot card. Llewellyn Worldwide, Woodbury, Minnesota, 2006), not necessarily in the same order and taking some liberties with the methods. As usual with magical studies, I'm finding the more I go into this the more routes and byways it opens up, and also finding that it is making connections with other things. This is surely the key to knowing you're not wildly off kilter in occult studies: they should open up new stuff, illuminate stuff you think you already know, and ultimately lead you back to where you started! This post will be fairly quote-heavy, I have tried to put in my own stuff as well, but there is no hiding the fact that I have been quite dependent on 'authorities' in my attempt to understand the tarot aces.

The Position and Function of the Aces in the Tarot

The most simple way to divide up the 78 cards of the tarot is into the 'major arcana' and the 'minor arcana'. Before Waite and Smith created the first completely pictorial deck, tarot decks always had pictures on the majors and the minors looked more like our modern playing cards. I remember my father describing the ace of spades as the 'curse of Scotland' (even though it seems that title is more usually reserved for another playing card) and that ace does have a certain drama about it. The aces have both this drama (when you get used to the tarot you can forget how weird some of the imagery actually is) and also a strange simplicity, since the suit symbol is shown (mostly) alone.
So let's look to the books first. We'll be returning to LWB 'meanings' for aces later, but let's just look at what is supposed to be going on. Sandra A Thomson (Pictures from the Heart. St Martin's Griffin, New York, 2003) writes that the aces show spirit-related impetus, opportunities, etc, entering our world. The cards show the opportunity but not us because we have to be open to it. The Golden Dawn titles for the aces are 'Root of the Powers of Air/Water/Fire/Earth' which seems to me another way of putting this. Of course the description of us as not depicted in the card only applies to pictorial deck, since you could say that of all the numbered cards in a pips-type deck.
Rachel Pollack completely reverses this definition, referring to the Golden Dawn in doing this (don't forget that the Rider-Waite tradition of tarot heavily references the kabbalistic Tree of Life, in which there is both ascent and descent, so that these two definitions need not be mutually exclusive):

'In arranging the cards I have followed Waite's example in moving from the King down to the Ace, rather than the other way round. Here too Waite was followed by the example of the Golden Dawn, which saw Spirit as metaphorically descending into the physical world, so that we count down from the higher numbers. Because kings (as traditional symbols rather than political reality) bear a responsibility for maintaining society, and because the king gives an image of maturity, the four Kings all symbolize the most socially-minded stable version of the suit. The Aces, on the other hand, signify unity and perfection. Therefore, the Aces stand for the elements in their purest form. The Ace of Wands stands for Fire itself and all that it means, while the other thirteen Wands cards depict some specific example of Fire, either in a situation (cards 2-10) or as a personality type (the court cards).' (Rachel Pollack: Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom. Element, London, 1997, p. 155)

This places them within a context within the Minor Arcana (we shall return to a system which relates them to the Major Arcana). I like that idea that the ace is the force behind the situations in the other cards. Mary K Greer actually rather treats the Aces as a category within the Tarot of their own, answering a different question to those answered by the other cards, placing them in a 'mode' of their own (the other three modes are Court Cards, which answer the question 'Who?', Number cards 2-10 which answer the question 'What?' and Major Arcana which answer the question 'Why?':

'Aces should be included with the number cards, but they fill their own particular function, answering the question 'Where?' Aces show the element, realm, or sphere where the situation has the most potential, especially for producing something new. The nineteenth-century French magus Eliphas Levi, in Transcendental Magic, explained the significance of the Aces as follows: "The ace of deniers [coins]...is the soul of the world; the ace of swords is military intelligence; the ace of cups is loving intelligence; the ace of clubs [wands] is creative intelligence; they are further the principle of motion, progress, fecundity and power."' (Greer, op. cit. p. 49)

In Qabala the aces are assigned to kether, the highest of the sephira. Lon Milo Duquette puts their position and interraltionship in the qabala like this, talking about the Ace of Wands which in the Thoth tarot is depicted as a huge fiery Tree of Life:

'In a very real way, this image is telling us that, just as all the sephiroth of all four Trees of Life are only aspects of the one supreme Kether, just as all four Qabalistic worlds are really only aspects of the highest world, just as the He and the Vau and the final He of YHVH are really only aspects of the Yod, all the cards of the Minor Arcana ultimately live inside one card, the Ace of Wands.' (Lon Milo Duquette: Understanding Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot, Weiser Books, San Francisco, 2003, p. 166.)

I had a text from a friend just now calling the Aces 'the Surprise!!! cards or the I dunno right now cards'. Maybe better leave it at that!

Description

Morgan-Greer
The first and most fundamental step of Greer's ways to read the cards is for the querent to describe (without interpreting in any way) the card in front of them. The first thing to notice is that in no tarot deck are the suit symbols the only things on the ace cards. I shall attempt to describe the Aces in the Rider-Waite Smith deck (interesting to compare them with the Marseille aces, since that was the type of deck used as the basis for RWS), without giving too many insights into my fevered imagination.
The Ace of Cups shows a right hand emerging palm up from a cloud on the right side of the card, holding on its palm a gold-coloured chalice, out of which stream five streams of water which flow down to join the water in a lily pond at the base of the card. The hand is surrounded by a radiance, and surrounding the streams coming from the chalice are what look like drops of water. The background is a neutral grey. Above the chalice is a dove, holding in its beak a circle with a cross on it; the bird is flying downwards as if to place the circle in the chalice. The chalice has on the outside of its bowl a W or possibly an upside down M.
I have immediately gained a new insight into this card from merely describing it, since it has never struck me before that the water flowing out of the chalice is actually joining a greater body of water. What is happening in this card is part of a greater whole, and actually contributes to the whole although its presence may not be apparent when you look at the whole picture.
The Ace of Pentacles shows a right hand emerging palm up from a cloud at the left hand side of the card. The hand is surrounded by a radiance and holds in it a pentacle. The pentagram on the pentacle is arranging single point upwards. At the base of the card is a garden. A lawn is at the lowest, nearest, part with some daffodils growing on it. A yellow path leads to a hedge further back, in which is an arch, through which can be seen two blue mountain peaks. The background to the card is a neutral grey.
New insight for me personally again from doing this exercise: I had never noticed that the garden contained daffodils until I blew up the card to look closer and describe it. I'm obviously now going to join the army of people who look for obscure details in RWS cards!
The Ace of Swords shows a hand emerging on the left hand side of the card, closed around the grip of a sword, with the back of the hand to us. The sword is a bluish coloure and has a guard (sorry, don't know the proper name) to stop the hand going onto the blade. The hand is surrounded by a radiance and the blade of the sword is surrounded by four yellow flame things. Around the top of the blade of the sword is a yellow crown with red jewels. Hanging from the crown is a mistletoe branch on the left side and a palm branch on the right side. At the base of the card are purple-blue mountains in the distance, and the background to the card is a neutral grey colour.
The Ace of Wands shows a hand in a palm towards us position, thumb up anad fingers around the end of a stick, coming out a cloud. The hand is emerging from our right to left of the picture, but the cloud does not go off the picture, so that the hand is actually emerging from nowehere. The stick is thinner at the bottom than at the top, and at the top is a sort of lump. There are some shoots with green leaves (three shoots) coming out of the stick, and there are also some leaves around the stick, which are not connected to it by a shoot. The hand is surrounded by a radiance. The base/background of the card shows a green countryside scene, with a stream, some trees, and a green hill. There is a castle on top of the hill. The background of the card is a neutral grey colour.
I ought to do that more often. Never noticed the castle before. Doh!

The elements

What we therefore have at this point is a depiction (in decks of the RWS tradition) of the essence of the four elements. In an occult sense these four cards depict the building blocks for everything. Sometimes I am so slow. It took me literally years after I got interested in witchcraft to realise what the tables of correspondences in the books are getting at. I was also hoodwinked by the traditional names of the elements. This was something that only became clear when I read somewhere that sexual orientation can be a manifestation of a polarity, just as the elements are manifestations of energies. The reason Alexandrian witches are so obsessed with male-female polarity is that they work with a model in which everything is divisible into two genders. This is absolutely not to say that everything in their tradition is about sex! It means that the philosophy underlying their tradition divides the cosmos up on those lines, in their workings this pattern is both celebrated, embodied, and implemented to continue this pattern.
The philosophy underlying the tarot divides everything up into four (yes I know many people would say five, because there may be Spirit considered as a separate one. For the record Spirit can be used to refer to the Major Arcana, but here I am using a division based on four because I am solely talking about the elements. It will appear here that I am neglecting Spirit and ignoring the Major Arcana. That's because I am. Temporarily). So everything can be attributed to one of these categories, which similarly will have various attributes, such as warm, dry, wet, etc. There will also be shades of meaning in each of these correspondences: a cold bath might be nice on a hot day but being thrown in the sea from a ship in a gale would be fatal. It cannot be overstressed that these four images (out of a total of 78) are a summary of everything. They are a small part of the big picture, but include literally all possibilities.
The cards indicate the potential, but this manifests for us in concrete events - these correspondences again - so that the sorts of experiences manifested by the underlying energy we call Air would be different from those of Water, and so on. This may sound obvious, but it is one of the things that make divination work: we find a map of everything, and see where we are in it.
In the Tarot the elements are represented by four things: Swords, Wands, Cups, and Pentacles, themselves perfectly capable of being slotted into a table of correspondences, and themselves manifestations of the underlying energies at work in the four suits. Given that the aces are the the potential for the elements, what we have here is (imagine the broad Dorset accent) 'not what the thing seem, but what it be'!
This would put the lie to many of the traditional 'fortune telling' interpretations of the aces - new beginnings and so on - if therefore the aces don't even represent a beginning but what comes before: if nothing is greater than God, kether is that nothing.

Comparative tarot

Golden Tarot of Klimt
There is no substitute for looking at another deck when you're stuck for an answer. A turning point in my understanding of the aces came when a friend showed me his Tarot Art Nouveau deck: I was looking round for a new deck, and elected not to buy that one because there are way too many nipples. That's similar to the reason I can't read with the Brotherhood Tarot. Ahem. But what this tarot does do is show people in the Ace cards, so that there are actually things happening. Instead I bought the Golden Tarot of Klimt, which similarly shows people doing things: Cups shows embracing, Pentacles showing, Wands looking inwards and Swords rejoicing in victory. Of course it is also important that these are only my personal impressions of these cards: others may see them differently. I was personally disappointed by the Tarot of the New Vision: it is interesting as one person's view of what is going on in the Rider Waite cards from different perspectives, but I feel they don't leave enough to the imagination for fruitful readings.
I originally learned Tarot on the Morgan Greer deck, and to this day that and the Aquarian Tarot which obviously heavily influenced it are my duvet decks. Morgan Greer is as if Monty Python did a tarot deck, although I would recommend Rider Waite to a beginner as Morgan Greer lacks some of the detail. I learned to read in the way associated with pictorial decks, of actually looking at the pictures and letting them speak to me, but I now find this method curiously dissatisfying. When I was describing the Rider Waite cards above I found myself thinking, 'So what?', and I think that that method of reading tarot cards falls down in the Aces because they don't usually show real experiences which manifest the underlying 'energy' of the card. I am beginning to find that pictorial minor arcana don't do it for me any more anyway, I think because I now have a better understanding of the theory underlying the pictures. The pictures can only ever show one manifestation of the energy of the card, and yes the pictures can change for us depending on where we are, but I have been surprised at some of the stuff I have got from non-pictorial minor arcana decks. I dearly love the Crystal Tarot, unfortunately my phone camera isn't good enough to do justice to the gorgeousness that is those cards. I have recently bought a Grimaud Ancien Tarot de Marseille, and am approaching it gingerly, because it's like spending time with the granddaddy of all modern tarot decks. Most of the time when reading for myself I use an amalgamated deck made of several decks, which is pictured at the top of this post.
The Marseille Tarot was heavily influential on the Rider Waite deck, but there is another influence on both that deck and on Crowley's Thoth deck: the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the importance of which in modern English-speaking occultism cannot be overstated. There is a rumour which is still peddled in some websites and books that the Rider Waite deck is that used by the Golden Dawn. This is not true: in the Golden Dawn you actually had to make your own deck, using descriptions in one of their manuscripts, and so to prove this rumour wrong, and also to provide another source for comparison, here are the descriptions of the aces from the Golden Dawn's Book T:

Aquarian Tarot (after borderectomy)
OF THE ACES

First in order and appearance are the four Aces, representing the force of the Spirit acting in, and binding together the four scales of each element and answering to the Dominion of the Letters of the Name in the Kether of each. They represent the Radical or Root-force. The Four Aces are said to be placed on the North Pole of the Universe, wherein they revolve, governing revolution, and ruling as the connecing link between Yetsirah and the Material Plane of the Universe.

I. The Root of the Powers of Fire

ACE OF WANDS

A white radiating angelic Hand issuing from Clouds and grasping a heavy Club which has thress branches in the colours and with the Sigils of the Scales. The right and left hand branches end respectively in three Flames and the centre one in four Flames, thus yielding Ten the number of the Sephiroth. Two and twenty leaping Flames or Yods surround it, answering to the paths of these. Three fall below the right branch for Aleph, Mem and Shin. Seven above the central branch for the double letters. And between it and that on the right, twelve - six above and six below - about the left hand Branch. The whole is a great and Flaming Torch. It symbolises Force, Strength, Rush, Vigour, Energy, and it governs according to its nature various works and questions. It implies natural as opposed to Invoked Force.

II. The Root of the Powers of the Waters.

ACE OF CUPS OR CHALICES

A Radiant white Angelic Hand issuing from clouds and supported on the palm thereof a Cup, resembling that of the Stolistes. From it rises a fountain of clear and glistening Water; and spray falling on all sides into clear calm water below, in which grow Lotus and water lilies. The great letter Heh of the Supernal Mother is traced in the spray of the Fountain. It symbolises Fertility, Productiveness, Beauty, Pleasure, Happiness, etc.

III. The Root of the Powers of Air

ACE OF SWORDS

A white radiating Angelic Hand, issuing from clouds, and grasping the hilt of a Sword, which supports a white radiant celestial Crown from which depend, on the right, the olive branch of Peace, and on the left, the palm branch of Suffering. Six Vaus fall from its point.
It symbolises invoked as contrasted with natural Force; for it is the Invocation of the Sword. Raised upward, it invokes the Divine Crown oof Spiritual Brightness. But reversed it is the invocation of demoniac force, and becomes a fearfully evil symbol. It represents therefore very great power for good or evil, but invoked. And it also represents whirling force, and strength through trouble. It is the affirmation of Justice, upholding Divine authority; and it may become the Sword of Wrath, Punishment and Affliction.

IV. The Root Powers of the Earth [Sic]

ACE OF PENTACLES

A white radiant Angelic Hand, holding a branch of a rose Tree, whereon is a large Pentacle, formed of five concentric circles. The innermost Circle is white, charged with a red Greek cross. From this white centre 12 rays, also white, issue. These terminate at the circumference, making the whole something like an astrological figure of the Heavens.
It is surmounted by a small circle, above which is a large Maltese Cross, and with two white wings; four roses and two buds are shewn. The hand issueth from the clouds as in the other three cases. It representeth materiality in all senses, good and evil, and is therefore in a sense illusionary. It shows Material gain, Labour, Power, Wealth, etc.
(Israel Regardie: The Golden Dawn (Sixth Edition, Revised and Enlarged), Llewellyn Worldwide, Woodbury MN, 1989, pp.542-3.)

It's interesting just over a century later (yes, it was as recently as that) to read the Golden Dawn's rituals and papers, to note how occultism has changed in that time, and been - I will say it - dumbed down! Reading these descriptions is like a compendium of occult symbols, so that my cunning plan in including these descriptions was to lead to some of Greer's other methods of interpreting cards. One is the symbology, and one of the things I love about occult studies is that you never get there, they  are never ending: the above descriptions explain some only of the symbols and could provide a springboard into a lifetime of study into colours, symbols, qabala, etc.
The other method referenced in these descriptions is one that - to be frank - I don't like very much, the method of keywords. I try to avoid this method because when I was learning tarot I used it to learn 'the meanings' by writing keywords on my original deck. As time went on I found this method limiting, although I think the keywords given above are not as limiting as they sometimes are. This is also the reason I personally don't use reversals (oh yes I can use them, I just don't choose to): I feel that the shades of meaning in the 78 cards are more than enough, adding reversals into the equation limits the possible meanings of the upright cards. That said, if a card does end up reversed in a reading I tend to read it in whatever way feels right at the time, but that's a whole different post!
Other ways to understand the cards come to mind here: drawing them, as if one were an initiate in the Golden Dawn, would be an interesting exercise. It would not only lead one into the cards themselves, but also drawing things is an interesting exercise in how you personally see the thing. Particularly if you can do this with someone else, it would be interesting to see how each person interprets the description when it is actually drawn.
Acting out the cards is another method I like to use. The querent is not always necessarily the obvious 'person' in the card: for example if you see yourself as the hand in the tarot cards, it would feel very different to hold the wand than it would to hold the overflowing cup. Similarly it would feel different to be the cup, and would then change the 'dynamic' of the card very much to how you would feel about the hand holding you.
One of the ways I have only recently discovered to read the cards is to see the minor arcana as referencing the major arcana of the same number: I discovered this method in some of the literature on reading the Marseille Tarot. I think this method may be relatively little known to English-speaking tarotists, because the approach to tarot amongst Francophones seems to be relatively uninfluenced by the kind of approaches engendered by the Rider Waite deck and its derivatives. They will often do Majors-only reading using a Marseille deck, and if they want more detail use an Etteilla or Lenormand deck. Anyway using this method would first and foremost connect the Aces to the Magician, and this approach works particularly well with the aces, because in most modern occult tarot decks the magician is shown with the symbols of the elements on the table in front of him, symbolising all possibilities lying in front of him. In one deck (sorry, can't remember which one) the magician is actually confronted with four possible routes to go down. I personally wouldn't like to have to choose only one: if I were the lovely Neo in the Matrix I would definitely want to swallow both pills when given a choice!

Book Meanings

Finally there are the meanings given in books. I don't wnt to give the impression, because I have left this method until last, that I would look down on it. Although I was brought up on the idea of looking at the cards and developed an early disdain for Little White Books, I have since overcome that attitude and now think that books are a valuable way to gain a new insight into a card when you're stuck. It also stops you from being stagnant in your own little tarot world (other ways would include using a different deck and drawing a clarifying card). So here are some traditional book meanings from Mary K Greer's The Complete Book of Tarot Reversals (Llewellyn Worldwide, Woodbury, 2001). Book meanings can also be very helpful in identifying the concrete situations in which the energies manifest. I include the reversed meanings for those who like that sort of thing.

Ace of Wands: Letter. Command, edict, decree. Announcement. Beginning, birth, commencement. Invention, Fortune, Enterprise. An adventure. Force, authority, order. Origin. Principle, pre-eminence. Premise, cause, reason. House, lineage, family. (p.98)

Ace of Wands Reversed: Fall, decadence, ruin, decline.Collapse, vexation. Lost or damaged goods. Unproductive work. Clouded joy. Illegitimacy or trouble with a birth. Tyranny, cruelty, persecution. Abandonment. A bad start. Hopes not realized. (p.99)

[She also gives 'yes' to this card upright and 'no' to this card reversed.]

Ace of Cups: Home, hearth, abode, family. Table, banquet, nourishment, feasting. Invitation. Good Cheer. Opulence, overindulgence. Good news. Fertility, birth. Love, passion. Kindness. Abundance. Beauty. Joy. Constancy. (p.118)

Ace of Cups Reversed: Change, novelty, revolution, alteration. Erosion, mutation, metamorphosis. Inconstancy, instability. Unrequited love. False-hearted. Sterility. Exchange, barter, sale. Donation. Benefits scorned. (p.119)

Ace of Swords: Difficulties. Accidents. Strife, battles, aggressiveness. Bravery. Strength, justice, power. Excess. Triumph by force. Authority. Conquest. Glory. Competition. Potency. Temper, passion. Conception. (p.138)

Ace of Swords Reversed: Slander. Disaster. Punishment. Tyranny. Injustice. Loss of Power. Destruction.Obstacles, hindrance. Prejudice. Seed. Sperm. Conception. Impotency. (p.139)

Ace of Pentacles: Perfect contentment, happiness, felicity. Prosperity. Sudden wealth. Enchantment, ecstasy, pleasure, satisfaction. Accomplishment. Complete solar medicine; gold. A "talisman of fortune." (p.158)

Ace of Pentacles Reversed: Finding of treasure. Wealth. Purse of gold. Profit. Opulence. Prosperity without happiness. Priceless. Sum total. Principal. Capital. Waste. Greed, meanness, avarice. Materialism. Wealth that corrupts. Fool's gold. (p.159)


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Commentary on the Charge of the Goddess 9: Melusine


Sources and Influences

BAM: Melusine:

Thealogy

Melusine (as the name is spelled in most published versions of the Charge), or Melusina, is at first sight a strange choice to include in the Goddess names of the Charge, since she doesn’t seem to have started off life as a Goddess, but as part of a mediaeval French legend.
Her rather endearing legend (Sabine Baring-Gould: Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (New Edition). Rivingtons, London, 1869.)  has it that Emmerick, rich and virtuous Count of Poitou, had a son, Bertram,  and a daughter, Blaniferte. Nearby lived the Count de la ForĂȘt, a poor relation with a large family. As an act of charity the Count of Poitou adopted Raymond, the handsome and charming youngest son of this family. One day they were out hunting in the forest together, and had become separated from their servants, so that there was no one to witness what followed. A boar rushed up to them, and Raymond, in trying to kill the bear with his sword, accidentally stabbed the Count of Poitou, who died. Raymond killed the boar, and wandered off into the forest in despair at what he had done.
After some time he came to a glade in the forest (you see, it really does have all the features of a fairy tale), illuminated by the light of the new moon, which contained a fountain, with three maidens nearby. One of them asked Raymond why he was afraid. He recounted his sorry tale, and she advised him to go back to Poictiers as if he didn’t know what had happened, relying on the fact that the whole party would be returning in dribs and drabs, not to draw attention to him. When the Count’s body was found, it would be assumed that he  had fatally wounded the boar with his sword, and that the boar had gored him with its horn before it died.
Raymond talked with the lady, who was Melusine, a ‘water-fay of great power and wealth,’ (Ibid, p.474.)  until daybreak. She asked him to persuade Bertram, his adoptive elder brother, to grant her as much ground around the fountain as could be covered by a stag’s hide, where she would build a wonderful palace. She promised to be Raymond’s wife on one condition: that he would leave her alone to spend Saturdays completely alone, and he would never intrude on her seclusion.
By means of Raymond cutting the stag’s hide up into strips, the land which Bertram gave to Melusine was actually a great area. Melusine and Raymond where married, with great ceremony, in the castle Melusine erected there. She kept on extending this castle, and called it Lusinia after herself, a name which has become corrupted to the modern Lusignan.
Melusine and Raymond had many children together, all of them hideous and disfigured in some way: their first, Urian, had one eye red and the other green; their fourth, Anthony, had claws on his fingers and was covered with hair; their sixth, ‘Geoffry with the Tooth’, had a boar’s tusk growing out of his jaw. Despite their deformities, their children grew up to be great heroes, warriors, and monks.
Meanwhile Raymond’s love for Melusine never faded, and he faithfully left her completely alone for twenty four hours every Saturday. Then one Saturday Raymond’s father asked after Melusine, and he said that she was not visible on Saturdays, but his brother whispered to him that people were gossiping about the reasons for her disappearance every Saturday, and he really should look into it, to set people’s minds at rest. So Raymond went to Melusine’s rooms, which he found empty, except that he could not enter the bathroom, because the door was locked. So he put his eye to the keyhole and found Melusine in the bath with her lower half changed into that of a fish or serpent.
Raymond said nothing to Melusine about this, and she gave no indication that she knew he had seen her. But then Geoffry with the Tooth attacked and burned the monastery of Freirmund, killing the abbot and 100 monks, including one of his brothers. Raymond was devastated, so upset that when Melusine approached him to comfort him, he repelled her with the words, ‘Away, odious serpent, contaminator of my honourable race.’
At this Melusine left him, but said that he and his successors would see her hovering over the castle at the deaths of its lords. She left by the window, leaving an impression of her foot in the stone. Two of Raymond and Melusine’s children were still in the cradle, and the nurses would see a shimmering comforting figure near the cradle at night.
It was long believed that Melusine would appear in the air over the castle of Lusignan before the death of its lord.
There are mediaeval accounts extant of this legend. In 1387 Jean d’Arras, secretary to the Duc de Berry, was ordered to collect all available information about Melusine. This was published in 1478, and repeatedly republished in the years to come. It contains a similarly legendary genealogy of Melusine, which brings the story rather closer to home: Melusine (the youngest), Melior and Plantina were the daughters of the Scots king Helmas, who married a fay named Pressina. She made him promise not to witness his lying-in, but he rushed in through his joy at the birth, and Pressina took away the triplets. When the triplets were fifteen, Pressina told them how their father had broken his promise, and Melusine determined on revenge. She and her sisters chained up King Helmas in the heart of a mountain called Avalon, which some sources locate in Northumberland. Her mother was so angry at this that she punished Melusine by condemning her to spend every Sabbath in half-fish-form, until she would find a suitor who would not enquire what happened to her on Saturdays.
So why include this mediaeval southern French legendary figure among the Goddess names of the Charge? Her name (in the form Melusine, rather than the form of Melusina, as used by Baring-Gould) does occur in Crowley’s The Law of Liberty, from which so many of the Crowley quotations in the original version of the Charge come. But I feel that the most likely source and inspiration for this inclusion is actually the chapter referenced here, in Baring-Gould’s book. He recounts the legend, as above, but then goes on to theorise about what is going on mythologically in this story. He highlights the death-omen aspect of the story, which may also serve to give the figure of Melusine a more home-grown aspect than the other Goddesses:
‘As Grimm has observed, this is a Gallic and therefore a Keltic myth, an opinion confirmed by the Banshee part played by the unfortunate nymph. For the Banshee superstition has no corresponding feature in Scandinavian, Teutonic, or Classic mythology, and belongs entirely to the Kelts.’ (Ibid, p. 488.)
Perfect for inclusion in a ritual of a cult which has survived underground for centuries: a little-known figure, who is not borrowed from wider mythology.
Obviously the enquirer may object that she is not a Goddess at all, but a mermaid, but the answer to that can be found in Baring-Gould as well. He finds parallels to her name in Goddesses in very diverse cultures. For example Mylitta was the corresponding moon-Goddess to the sun-God Moloch. In Greece the priestesses of Demeter were called Melissae. Selene, the moon, was also called by the name Melissa, which passed into the Gallic Celts’ popular mythology as a title for nymphs, until it was attached to Melusine.
In fact he believes her to be a moon-Goddess, in the form of half-human and half-fish. He gives various examples of Goddesses in this shape from North America, Iceland, and Ceylon. Ultimately he likens Melusine to
‘...the Semitic moon-goddess, who followed the course of the sun, at times manifesting herself to the eyes of men, at others seeking concealment in the western flood was represented as half woman, half fish, with characteristics which make her lunar origin indisputable. Her name was Derceto or Atergatis.’ (Ibid, p. 497)
So in fact Melusine would seem an ideal figure for inclusion here: she is fairly obscure, genuinely old (admittedly not as old as, say, Artemis, but she would fit the period for veneration by a postulated witch cult which had gone underground). She is near to home, with links in her stories to Britain, and even without them links can be forged to the Celts. And she is also a figure who has parallels in many different cultures, so has the required element of universality.

Commentary on the Charge of the Goddess 8: Dione


Sources and Influences

BAM: Dione:

Thealogy

Dione is a somewhat obscure Greek Goddess whose name is the feminine equivalent of Zeus. At Dodona she had a cult under the name of Naia beside that of Zeus Naius, and only limited veneration elsewhere (Simon Price and Emily Kearns (editors): The Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003.).
In the Iliad she is named, perhaps significantly as she impacts on the idea of the Great Mother of the Charge, as the mother of Aphrodite, and her comforting words to her daughter are recorded:
‘...In Dione’s lap
Aphrodite sank down, and her dear mother
Held and caressed her, whispering in her ear:
“Who did this to you, darling child? In heaven
Who could have been so rude and wild,
As though you had committed open wrong?”
[Aphrodite tells her mother who it was]
“There, child, patience, even in such distress.
Many of us who live upon Olympos
Have taken hurt from men, and hurt each other.”’
(Homer (translated by Robert Fitzgerald): The Iliad. Everyman’s Library, London, 1992, p. 121.) 

And Dione, pictured as a healing Goddess, soothes away Aphrodite’s hurt.
Gardner equates Dione with Diana, as the wife of Janus, worshipped in Britain by refugees from the fall of Troy (Gerald Gardner: The Meaning of Witchcraft. Weiser Books, York Beach, 2004.):  an interesting syncretism, since it means that three of the Goddesses named in the Charge – Artemis, Diana, and Aphrodite – are actually the same divinity, underlining the theme of the Charge, that ‘all Goddesses are one Goddess,’ known under many names.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Tarot: The Tower today

London
One of my birth cards is the much-dreaded Tower card (the other is the Chariot) so I have always felt an affinity for the energy of this card. Appropriately it & the Chariot are probably amongst the tarot cards most widely represented in our modern world!
The pictures of a brutalist block of flats, and the demolition of the same block, show a block designed by Sir Basil Spence, most famous for designing Coventry Cathedral (in fact this post was occasioned by the thoughts on modernism prompted by my visit to Coventry). These blocks of flats - tower blocks as they are known if they are high enough - symbolise the well-intentioned planning of the couple of decades after the 2nd world war, which went wrong as the years progressed. An interesting illustration of a tower representing our good aspirations which then don't work out. In Britain (some countries such as France have cities structured the other way round so that the 'inner city' is actually on the outside) if you find some relatively high vantage point to observe the structure of a city, you can see the higher buildings of the business and financial district sticking up out of the surrounding lower residential areas. Yes, there is less room to build sprawling buildings in city centres, but the actual outcome is that power & prestige = tall buildings. It will be interesting to see what will happen to the flats built in recent years in Birmingham City Centre, whether they will continue to be desirable in years to come.
Far removed from the para-sexual power imagery of big business, for Catholics a title of Mary is Tower of Ivory, signifying enclosure, virginity. Ivory towers of course more commonly refer to an aloofness from boring reality. The phrase also brings to mind the fairy tale image of the princess locked in the tower. Towers represent containment, both of something valuable & of something dangerous (in English being in 'the Tower' is proverbial for being imprisoned in the Tower of London). The card's title in some French decks, 'La Maison Dieu' can signify both the changing of values, and the theory (of which I'm very fond) that the tarot was a metaphorical raspberry at the church! The house of God may appear to be built on rock, safe from the waves surrounding it, but the lightning from heaven can still get at the inhabitants. In the Rider- Waite deck the shape of the lightning is that of a line going through all the sephiroth of the Tree of Life, suggesting a correction of an imbalance in the situation.
Of course the tarot card shows the people falling out. If this is an imprisonment it may come as a release & a relief. It may be scary if the tower is something you have built yourself to protect you & your values. There is a tradition that there is an unseen door in the back of the Tower in the Marseille deck, out of which the lower man is crawling, rather than falling from a great height.
When a tower collapses it is often catastrophic because of the height and extent of damage possible. The picture of a partially-collapsed tower block is of the Ronan Point disaster, caused by shoddy construction & triggered by a gas explosion, which was amongst the events which cast doubt on the wisdom of building higher, at least in Britain. When a tower is demolished it requires much preparation to do it safely, stripping out glass & asbestos, etc. If we ant to demolish our own towers we must put in a good deal of thought & preparation to make sure there will be no unintended consequences! There is also a great tradition of watching towers' demolition. We all love a good wrecking, but given the full symbolism of the Tower could it be that we are actually watching the destruction of unwanted values, despised privilege, and resented power?
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Sunday, September 23, 2012

The witch as obstacle

"Blessings be upon this house," said Granny Weatherwax. In much the same tone of voice have people said, 'Eat hot lead, Kincaid.'
Terry Pratchett: Lords & Ladies

Everybody needs a witch in their life. This is a fundamental law of nature. The reason they need one is that they don't realise they do. To be the one person who will take a situation in hand, say what nobody wants to hear, and do what nobody wants to know about, this is almost the definition of a witch. Before I realised I was a witch I used to wonder why so many people go through life hiding from their own reality, refusing to see the situation they are in, & just generally not living in reality. Now I realise it's because they have not had that little push that will open the way for their gnosis.
We are all here with our own 'tasks' to do, but I like to think that the role of the witch is to enable people to achieve their task more easily. It's just they don't usually like what they have to hear from us!
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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Witchcraft is good for you

It has been in the news this week that there is new evidence that people's beliefs concerning their level of influence over their health have a major impact on their actual health.
This is not actually news to anyone involved in health care, or indeed in any field involving any aspect of human behaviour!
There is a huge difference between saying 'We've always been big in my family & died of heart disease,' and saying, 'I know I am overweight, I know that puts me at risk of an early death which I don't want so I will do something to change it.'
The difference here, of course, is the sense of agency. If we feel a sense of agency over our lives, rather than just being the passive recipients of whatever comes our way, we are in a position to make changes which can have far-reaching consequences in our lives.
This sense of agency is such a witch 'thing' that it should really require no further elaboration apart from to repeat the magical motto of 'know thyself': to what areas of my life do I need to apply this sense of agency?
While the life of the witch is filled with ecstasy and much peace, it can never be said to be a life where we get comfortable of rest on our laurels for long!
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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Spirit of Place: Hagley Road

Today I want to share with you one of my favourite places near to where I live. When you see the pictures most of you will probably think I have taken leave of my senses, but the place is a good example of how the *spirit* of a place can be unrelated to its somewhat grotty appearance.
The place is a small area of Edgbaston in Birmingham, right by the border into Sandwell through Bearwood (more on Bearwood anon). The Hagley Road is the most prominent feature nowadays, which is a long road leading out of Birmingham which manages to encompass a lot of different spirits of places on its way. Up until the nineteenth century much of the land around this area was still woodland or farmland, and it is strange to think that in the time of Blessed John Henry Newman (the Hagley Road's most famous resident) one could walk from the city centre to the Oratory and see a *completely* different landscape from nowadays.
Unfortunately this area is probably best known for its wrecked buildings and the dodginess of its inhabitants! The first picture is a mock up by the Victorian Society of what some of the wrecked houses could look like if done up. The second picture shows what they actually did look like at the time they were trying to get them listed. The application was turned down, despite them being the last works of a particular architect. What always strikes me is how young the derelict buildings are here, and how quickly dereliction has set in. Both were being used as bedsits or 'hotels' up into the 1990s: obviously with a total neglect of any maintenance, but it's still taken inside of 20 years to get to a state where they are totally uninhabitable.
Next one of the things which I think gives this place its spirit: the old railway line which ran from Harborne to Winson Green. It is now long gone, of course, although it's been made into a path, but it retains a feel of a place where one can move between different places, both geographically and ethereally. Since Sandwell council wrecked my favourite crossroads by installing new lighting I tend to use the tunnel under the Hagley Road for a lot of magic, disposing of magical remains in the womb of the mother, burning sigils, etc. Strangely when doing this I have never yet felt threatened by any of the drug addicts loitering around or the old lags out from their bail hostels. The walk along the line is reputed to be haunted: people reportedly hear the sound of trains. Unfortunately I never did until I heard of this so would be inclined to put it down to imagination.
Next some more derelict hotels: night in the Town House Hotel, anybody? The Knowle Lodge Hotel was actually in use until last year, when someone set the empty house next door on fire. Until recently it had a kind of scaffolding roof over it, but perhaps the owner has now accepted that demolition is the way ahead! The half demolished building glimpsed through a remaining window (they actually started demolishing it and just left it) was a pub called The Talbot. No, I never drank in there; my time to die is not quite yet, although one of my neighbours achieved the extraordinary feat of being banned from there!
The final landmark (perhaps I should say that I have wilfully missed out lots of thriving businesses and inhabited houses: they're boring, it's the wreckage that makes this place fascinating) is the former Bunnies. This was a brothel, originally called Cuddles, which was continually in the midst of controversy, even beside the nature of their business! It got raided a few years ago & the police found that foreign women were illegally being kept there, with their passports taken off them. The owner went to prison for a spell over that. Then he decided to extend into the next shop without bothering to wait for planning permission. Obviously that didn't endear him to the council, so he didn't get planning permission and ultimately it closed completely. Don't worry though, the sex industry is far from dead locally!
Just a whistlestop tour of another magical place locally.
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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Circle


The historical source for the witches' use of the Circle is undoubtedly the grimoire tradition, from which Gardner took so much. The Circle does, however encompass (literally) a whole philosophy and theology of witchcraft.
The Circle is essentially an expansion of a dot, which represents a centre, a place of happening, an event, a time. The expansion of this dot into the Circle can indicate the expansion of this microcosm to form a macrocosm; this is what we do when we change reality by doing one thing on one level which is intended to make that same change on all levels, or in all worlds.
The line around the Circle is a something containing the space inside which is a nothing, representing the creation of new things out of nothing.  The centre and circumference can reference the quote that God/dess is a circle whose centre is everywhere and circumference is nowhere. So the Circle can represent divinity him/her/themself, and our working inside it reflects our co-creation with divinity of the reality around us.
'The women recall the story of the one who lived for a long time where the camels pass. Bareheaded beneath the sun,Clemence Maieul incessantly invokes Amaterasu the sun goddess, cutting her abundant hair, abasing herself three times on the ground which she strikes with her hands, saying, I salute you, great Amaterasu, in the name of our mother, in the name of those who are to come. Our kingdom come. May this order be destroyed. May the good and the evil be cast down. They say that Clemence Maieul often drew on the ground that O which is the sign of the goddess, symbol of the vulval ring.' (Monique Wittig: Les Guerilleres. Beacon Press, Boston, pp.26-27.)
A more specific and literal reference from the shape of the Circle to the woman's vulva is found in Z Budapest:
"Once they smell a woman's circle, they never go back to the other way!" Flash Silvermoon: Dianic Wicca. http://lesbian-pride.com/flash.html, accessed 16.8.12.
All points on the edge of the circle are an equal distance from the centre, which reflects the balance and right order that witches strive for in their lives and working. It is also a model of equality, over and against, say, the hierarchical structure of the mediaeval cathedral.
In Wicca a new use for the Circle which does not come from the grimoire tradition is as a container for the energy that is raised within it. It can also be a constraint for the witch herself, as in this Crowley quote:

The Circle announces the Nature of the Great Work.[...]
[The Magician] chooses a circle rather than any other lineal figure for many reasons; e.g.,
1. He affirms thereby his identity with the infinite.
2. He affirms the equal balance of his working; since all points on the circumference are equidistant from the centre.
3. He affirms the limitation implied by his devotion to the Great Work. He no longer wanders about aimlessly in the world.
(Aleister Crowley: Magick. Guild Publishing, London, 1986, p. 49.)

The endless 'path' around the edge of the circle can signify the unavoidable nature of our path: we are here to do something individual for each of us, and any attempt to avoid our necessary 'task' is doomed.By 'drawing' a circle around ourselves, we accept our task and consecrate ourselves to it, either for the period of that ritual or longer.
Our circle references another philosophy, that of the Japanese enso, which is particularly a symbol of Zen> It represents absolute enlightenment, strength, elegance, and the universe. It is also an expression of that moment, and the common artist's practice of drawing an enso every day represents an attempt to live in only that moment and have nothing but that enso matter there and then. Clearly a philosophical reflection of our 'I am that which is achieved at the end of desire.' The enso is also sometimes seen as a part of a greater whole, or an expression of the necessity and acceptance of imperfection, in which case it may have an opening in it.

Of course the circle also references the image of the ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail, which Plato (in Timaeus 33) saw as the first creature:

The living being had no need of eyes because there was nothing outside of him to be seen; nor of ears because there was nothing to be heard; and there was no surrounding atmosphere to be breathed; nor would there have been any use of organs by the help of which he might receive his food or get rid of what he had already digested, since there was nothing which went from him or came into him: for there was nothing beside him. Of design he created thus; his own waste providing his own food, and all that he did or suffered taking place in and by himself. For the Creator conceived that a being which was self-sufficient would be far more excellent than one which lacked anything; and, as he had no need to take anything or defend himself against any one, the Creator did not think it necessary to bestow upon him hands: nor had he any need of feet, nor of the whole apparatus of walking; but the movement suited to his spherical form which was designed by him, being of all the seven that which is most appropriate to mind and intelligence; and he was made to move in the same manner and on the same spot, within his own limits revolving in a circle. All the other six motions were taken away from him, and he was made not to partake of their deviations. And as this circular movement required no feet, the universe was created without legs and without feet. Source
I would venture to say that we witches would tend to see the circle as something we must go along, rather than as something to escape from, as the alchemists saw the ouroboros snake: while it represented for them the eternal cycles of life and death, they sought escape from these cycles. I think we witches would have more of an ethic of rightness. Even Jung has got hold of the image of the ouroboros/circle, and made it a model for the theory of inidividuation:
The alchemists, who in their own way knew more about the nature of the individuation process than we moderns do, expressed this paradox through the symbol of the Ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail. The Ouroboros has been said to have a meaning of infinity or wholeness. In the age-old image of the Ouroboros lies the thought of devouring oneself and turning oneself into a circulatory process, for it was clear to the more astute alchemists that the prima materia of the art was man himself. The Ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of the shadow. This 'feed-back' process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the Ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself. He symbolizes the One, who proceeds from the clash of opposites, and he therefore constitutes the secret of the prima materia which [...] unquestionably stems from man's unconscious. Source

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The devil's willy & back to Brum

The picture of the devil's penis somehow got removed from my last post, so here it is now! Of course the devil's penis was rumoured to be cold & I'm sure this one would be. The witch hunters would have said that as a witch I should know what it is like, & I would reply that while I've experienced others, you have to be a Christian to believe in the devil!
It is unfortunate that on the rail line back from Coventry/Birmingham International you see all the worst side of Birmingham. That side is known as eastside and it is planned to create a huge park in the ruins of Birmingham's industrial past. The building is Birmingham's original railway station, for which a use has never been found, except for the land around it which is used by skater boys & graffiti artists!
Getting off the train & there was the usual mix of religions on New Street. The picture is of the Hare Krishnas (although I did think Van Gogh was dead). Next to them was a much quieter group of Moslems with their table of literature. There was no actual conflict going on but both groups looked uncomfortable. The Moslems are often higher up New Street, but there they come across the fundamentalist Christians & the Scientologists.
Another contrast in the cathedral churchyard: it is the Saturday meeting place of all the local goths & emos, who make me feel terribly old. Amongst them were some Christians doing healing. I suppose ther's nothing actual wrong with Christians being in the churchyard on a Saturday afternoon, they just look very incongruous with all the other people!
This is what I love about city living: while it occasionally erupts into conflict, there is a mixture of people which automatically creates an accustomed-ness to the other. The Black Country village I grew up in was terribly insular. There were seriously people who thought that relatives who had moved to the next village had moved far away, I was the only gay in the village (actually there were others but it wasn't something you could talk about) & I couldn't wait to get out.
There were pupils at my school who had never met a Protestant. It is hard to believe there are people who think they have never met a homosexual. There are people who think their children would be somehow at risk from homosexuals. There are people who would genuinely believe that as a witch & a queer, I am doomed to hell, possessed by the devil, whatever.
The answer to this? The sovereignty of the individual, which must always be given priority over any 'community'. Crowley thought that if we truly do our will this will not conflict with that of another, & so I would say that a true individual sovereignty will not conflict with another person's. This almost utopian vision may seem too far-fetched in a world of what Christians call 'sin'. I would even reframe sin as the infringement on another's sovereignty. Yes, it's true: I am a lot of people's worst nightmare, I am an abomination to the Lord & intend to continue so, because this is the furrow I have been put on this earth to plough. The world may not be greatly changed by my life, but as a part of the whole I am a force of nature which like fire can change everything in its path.
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Spirit of place: Coventry, & some thoughts on modernism

To Coventry today. I have somewhat mixed feelings about Coventry in one way or another. Perhaps I had better declare right from the start that not the least reason for this is that the love of my life lives in Coventry. This is an unrequited love; perhaps it says so much about me that he is straight, as are all the best men. (When I rarely get one of them into bed I lose interest because he ceases to be a real man).
Be that as it may, Coventry is proverbial as the place to which you send someone if you're not on speaking terms. It also has a reputation for the most comprehensive post-World War 2 rebuilding & for its cathedral.
But more important for the spirit of place, what does it feel like? Well it felt different this time to previous visits. This may be because I personally am in a different place but it felt more friendly, less desperate. The bedrock of feeling is obviously its ancient heritage: you walk out of a 1960s shopping centre into a street of timber-framed houses. There is a genuine feeling of disconnectuon between the elements, a feeling that violence has been done to the spirit of place, that it has not developed organically in the way Worcester has.
I don't like the cathedral - Guildford beats it hands down as a modern cathedral, in my opinion. The whole ethos of 'forgive us' makes me uncomfortable, I feel it leads to the over-reconstruction of past wrongs, accentuated by the building of a new cathedral rather than the reconstruction of the old. The sculpture is Epstein's 'Ecce Homo,' representing Jesus before Pontius Pilate: these Christians are obsessed with binding, holding, controlling & being controlled. They even dwell on the torture & death of their God! It must also be horrendously expensive to keep a ruin at just that stage of decay. Rebuild it or let it fall down is my cry!
Coventry's sixties architecture has a bad reputation but I must admit to liking it. Getting off the train at the railway station reminds me of the opening scenes of the 60s TV programme Danger Man. And the reason Coventry's 60s architecture doesn't look too bad is that it has been looked after, not neglected like Birmingham's. It is important to remember that after World War II there was genuinely a feeling abroad of a new world. We can look on the benign paternalism of 60s planning as doomed in retrospect, but at least they were willing to have a go! If only they could have borne in mind the cyclical nature of history, that there is never genuinely a final war or a final cityscape: each generation adds and takes away, & I feel that this is the real enduring message of the modernist movement.
And finally I can't resist including a picture of the devil's willy from the new cathedral!
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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Laurence Soper continued

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Andrew Soper
As this candle wanes
So your hiding places wane.
When this candle is gone
So is your liberty.
And you pay for your crimes
You pay for your crimes
You pay for crimes
Revealed revealed revealed
Nailed nailed nailed.

(Andrew is his 'real' name, hence used in the spell. Laurence is his name 'in religion' - yes, I'm like the CIA of witchcraft, give me enough time I could probably tell you his inside leg measurement)

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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Commentary on the Charge of the Goddess 7: Astarte

Astarte;

Sources and Influences

BAM: Astarte:

Thealogy

Astarte is a name for a Goddess (or several Goddesses, or one syncretised with a number of others) of the ancient Near and Middle East, who has probably the most complicated history of the Goddesses named in the Charge. Her origins lie in Sumeria, modern day Iraq, where the parallel Goddess was called Inanna, and in Babylonia, where she was called Ishtar.  (This historical information is taken from the survey in Anne Baring and Jules Cashford: The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Archetype. Book Club Associates, London, 1991.)
The development of archaeology from the nineteenth century onwards is what has made these cultures known to us, and in fact much remains to be uncovered. The discovery of these cultures of the third and fourth millenia BCE make Astarte probably the oldest Goddess name referred to here, and reveal the origin of the Sumerian culture, many of whose ideas passed through Babylonian, Assyrian and Canaanite culture, through the Bible, into our Judaeo-Christian culture. The origins of the Sumerian people remain unknown, but their history was ultimately marked by conflict with the neighbouring Semitic (supposedly the descendents of Shem in the Bible) peoples, and finally the overcoming of their culture by the Babylonians.
The Babylonians kept, translated, and transmitted much of the culture of the Sumerians, meaning that Ishtar, Goddess of Babylonia, inherited much of the mythology and ritual  of her Sumerian predecessor, Inanna (the books are divided on whether to treat these two Goddesses as separate entities or not).
Astarte was truly referred to by many names.  (Egerton Sykes (edited by Alan Kendall): Who’s Who in Non-Classical Mythology. J.M. Dent, London, 1993.) Her Hebrew name, Ashtoreth, results from both the 6th century BCE standardisation of Hebrew vowels (Hebrew is a language where vowels are indicated by small points placed around the consonants, allowing for a certain ambiguity in spelling. In written modern Hebrew, these vowel points are not included at all.), and the inclusion in the names of all foreign deities of the vowels of the Hebrew word ‘boshet’, meaning ‘abomination.’ Another name was Asherah, meaning simply ‘Goddess’; Lucian calls her ‘Syria Dea’ – ‘Goddess of Syria’; she was also called by the name Atargatis, a conflation of Astarte and Anat, a different Goddess.
Astarte was a fertility Goddess, whose cult extended over the whole Middle East and beyond. The Greeks equated her with Aphrodite, which seems to be the same Goddess cult in a new environment. As Ashtoreth she was the Goddess of war in Egypt, where from 1800 BCE until Christian times, she was known as the lady of hares and chariots. In Ugarit texts she was also called Asheratian (‘The Asherah of the Sea’), and Creatress of the Gods, being the mother of 70 Gods and Goddesses.
Astarte’s mythology shows the influence of four different cultures (  Baring and Cashford, op.cit.) : she was a Mother Goddess (many Goddesses have been given this title – a Roman Goddess even being called Magna Mater, Great Mother – which does not mean that her cultists believed in a single universal Mother Goddess), a fertility Goddess, and she accumulated both the names and attributes of various local Goddesses, and they were syncretised with her.  Her role in mythology is not consistent: at different times she is Mother, or being raped, or walking in fear of the Gods, or being the wife, daughter or sister of the Gods. Her position in the pantheon also changed in a process where Gods began to be primary to female Goddesses; Baring and Cashford comment that her mythology is further complicated by these two historical layers of mythology, and identify the tradition where the Goddess is primary as the elder. They conclude that these conflicting influences and historical layers, together with the relative paucity of the information which has been uncovered about this Goddess, make it impossible to come to a firm genealogy, or even names for the divinities. Because of this I would be wary of those authors who seize on Sumer and its neighbouring and succeeding cultures as examples of ‘Goddess civilisations’: the history is far too complicated to reach sweeping conclusions, and much of it is founded on archaeological evidence, which is always difficult of interpretation.
However, there is one well-known textual source for her, albeit heavily edited to give one side’s point of view: she is an example of the Goddesses named in the Charge who appear in a situation of conflict in the Bible, and her cult was very much of the time of the transition to monotheism. Again and again in the Hebrew Bible, the people of Israel are criticised for worshipping foreign gods and goddesses. In this time of transition the concern of the worshippers of Yahweh in Canaan was to uproot the worship of Baal (or the Baals) and his consort Astarte. It seems that elements of Canaanite religion were absorbed and adapted by Yahwism (which will sound familiar from the Christianisation of Europe) but the people would not abandon their old Gods. The people who maintained worship of Yahweh with other Gods were the target of the followers of Yahweh in their polemic writing, since the covenant with one God meant worshipping him alone. So Astarte is a Goddess who is most familiar to us from a context of religious conflict, with the followers of the old ways wanting to maintain them against the proponents of that new-fangled monotheism:
‘...it was not felt that the two religions were contradictory or mutually exclusive. Indeed, there was a strong tendency for the two faiths to coalesce in popular worship. As we know from archaeology, in the outlying regions of Israel people had in their possession figurines, small statuettes, of the goddess of fertility, Ashtart.’ ( Bernhard Anderson: The Living World of the Old Testament (Fourth Edition). Longman, Harlow, 1988, p. 190.)
There is one obvious reason for the inclusion of her name in the ritual of Wicca: she was the consort of the God Baal, and the two divinities were worshipped together. Here we have the motif, which recurs in many mythologies of male gods and female goddesses paired together. On one level it is an expression of how Pagan Gods are more like us as humans: they relate to each other in family trees, they love, they fight. This is far different from the remote Gods of monotheisms, and creates an entirely different world-view for their worshippers. Gardner believed that the witches worshipped small Gods, who were not too strict, and certainly in duotheism or polytheism, the Gods are more immediate and – almost – human.
On another level this pairing of Goddess and God reflects one of the major mysteries of Wicca as a fertility cult and mystery school: Wicca’s major polarity is that of male and female in creating fertility in all aspects of our lives. This is unashamedly and unavoidably a sexual mystery: sex is the means by which men and women create children, and this ability to create in all spheres of life is mirrored, in Wicca, primarily in the sexuality polarity of male and female.
One difference exists, though: in most Wiccan traditions the Goddess is definitely preeminent over the God, who is seen as her consort, whereas  Astarte, despite the difficulties of identifying her and her relationships to other Gods, is always seen in the Bible as the consort of the God Baal. Some have written that it was not so in pre-Valiente Wicca, and attribute the accentuation of the Goddess to her.
Another possible reason for her name appearing in the Charge could be that since this is the Charge of the Great Mother who was of old called by many names, the syncretic nature of her history and cults fits well with the thealogy of the Charge. Connections can be made with Aphrodite, also named here, and with Egypt, a famous centre of magical learning:
‘Astarte, identified by the Greeks with Aphrodite, was by the Egyptians transformed into an Egyptian goddess, represented as the daughter of Ptah and worshipped with Egyptian rites, though this did not prevent her from being identified also with Ptah’s wife, the lion-headed Sakhmet, a goddess of war. It is idle to look for logical consistency in the bewildering kaleidoscope of ancient paganism, in which gods mingle with one another continually, yet somehow keep their identity.’  (H. Idris Bell: Cults and Creeds in Graeco-Roman Egypt. Ares Publishers, Chicago, 1975, p. 16.)

There is another, more obvious, reason for Astarte’s inclusion at a key moment of Wiccan ritual: the famous story of her descent to the underworld is echoed by that of the Goddess in Wiccan ritual.
It is known in two versions, one featuring Inanna and the other Ishtar, who in a mirror of the Wiccan myth of descent ritually acted out within the coven,
‘...Determined to go...
To the house which those entering cannot leave,
On the road where travelling is one-way only,
To the house where those who enter are deprived of light...
Ishtar, when she arrived at the gate of Kurnugi,
Addressed her words to the keeper of the gate...’  (Stephanie Dalley (translator): Myths from Mesopotamia. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000, p. 155. The account of Ishtar’s descent is paraphrased from this translation.)

The gatekeeper tells Ereshkigal that Ishtar has arrived at the gate; she becomes angry and tells the gate keeper to ‘treat her according to the ancient rites.’ Then comes the passing through the gates and being stripped at each one. At the first gate she is stripped of her crown; at the second she is stripped of her ear-rings; at the third, of the beads around her neck; at the fourth, of the toggle-pins at her breast; at the fifth, of her birth-stone girdle; at the sixth, or the bangles on her wrists and ankles; and at the seventh, she is stripped of her garment. Each time she asks why, and the gatekeeper replies that these are the rites of the Mistress of Earth. After this Ereshkigal trembles before her, but Ishtar unhesitantly leans over her and Ereshkigal sends out a number of diseases to her. The whole world stops in mourning. Then the God Ea creates Good-Looks the playboy and sends him to Ershkigal to ask for water. Ereshkigal sends Namtar to revivify Ishtar with the waters of life, and Ishtar returns through the gates, being given back the things of which she has been stripped, at each one.
It was thought that as a result of this Dumuzi rose again and that (although this was not proved until 1963) that a ritual enactment of his dying and rising again caused seasonal fertility. In the shorter Ishtar version quoted here, unlike in the Inanna version, there is no ritual given for this, but Dalley believes that the account features the goddess as a ritual statue, which may have made a periodic ritual journey to the underworld and back again. Parallels to this myth are found in other mythologies – such as Persephone – so it need not have been this one that was chosen, but its significance in a Wiccan context is that it underlines the Wiccan myth of seasonal birth, death and rebirth.
In the Wiccan version of this myth (Gerald Gardner: Witchcraft Today. Arrow Books, London, 1975, p. 45)  the Goddess journeys to the ‘nether lands’ to solve all mysteries. At the gate the guardian tells her to take off her garments and jewellery, which she does. Death himself kneels and kisses her feet in homage, but she replies that she does not love him, and asks him why he causes all the things she does love, to die. Death replies that it is not him, but Age and Fate that cause this, tells her that she is lovely, and asks her to stay with him. She refuses, repeating that she does not love him, and he tells her that she must be scourged because of this. Death scourges her and she cries out, ‘I know the pangs of love,’ and Death replies that only so can she obtain joy and knowledge. Death teaches her all the mysteries and magics, and they loved, since magic controls love, death, and resurrection, the three great events in life. Then comes a great mystery of Wicca: the return from death at the same time and in the same place as those we have loved before. But this cannot happen without dying first, love is necessary for birth, ‘and this is all the magic.’
This myth parallels and adds a new twist to other descent myths. For Ishtar the trial is of having her clothing and gaudies removed progressively at each gate; the Wiccan descent myth disposes of them all at the beginning. In the Ishtar version there is then only death until Ereshkigal decides to revivify her. In the Wiccan version this is changed firstly to the challenge motif, of whether the Goddess is actually prepared to love Death, and then the trial motif, which takes the form of scourging. The Ishtar version is a more straightforward telling of a fertility motif, where death leads to life by the will of a Goddess, and a ritual enactment of this myth to continue the creation of this life. In the Wiccan version the trappings of transitory life are disposed of at the beginning; the Goddess is challenged to love Death, her apparent enemy; she is tried by the scourging. These are the things which enable her actually to come to love Death, and enable her to learn all mystery and magic, which are themselves contained in the very processes which constitute the myth, love, birth, death. A final addition comes in the extension of this continuing circle of life to love itself, which becomes the final mystery: our love does not end at death, but because we love, it can continue into new life.
Gardner makes this myth the centre of witch belief, and comments on its differences from parallel myths:
‘This myth upon which its members base their actions is the central idea of the cult. Perhaps it was coined to explain ideas and rituals already conceived, and to explain why the wiser, older and more powerful god should give his power over magic to the goddess. It is very easy to say this is only the story of Istar descending into hell, but the point of the story is different. It is quite possible that the stories of Istar and Siva have influenced the myth, but I think that its origin is most likely Celtic. In Celtic legends the Lords of the Underworld did prepare you for rebirth, and many living people are said to have entered their regions, formed alliances with them and returned safely, but it needed great courage; only a hero or a demigod dared to risk it. ...’  (Ibid, p. 46.)
In The Meaning of Witchcraft, Gardner makes a further allusion to the significance of Ishtar to witches: he connects her with Freya, asserting that she was probably the original Great Mother, and connects the two Goddesses with the witch cult by their use of necklaces, upon which witches set great store, and he sees the loss of her clothing as representing the waning of the moon, until the Goddess is resurrected in beauty and power.  (Gerald Gardner: The Meaning of Witchcraft. Weiser Books, York Beach, 2004.)
The significance of this myth for Wiccans is found in the concept of initiation, which is why the myth of the Goddess features in the Third Degree initiation ritual. This is paralleled by the tales of shamanic sickness and the power unleashed by crises, in other traditions. It is by being challenged and coming to love Death that for magical people the keys to all magic and mystery are revealed. This initiation, for Wiccans, takes place in a ritualised context, which reflects and reinforces inner initiatory experiences. The witch who has descended into the underworld and, by facing the tribulations, which are found there, can rise to new life. The trappings are abandoned at the beginning in the Wiccan version, to indicate a stripping of the former personality.
In the Wiccan version, the Goddess actually comes to love Death, which is a major difference from the Ishtar version, where he doesn’t feature at all, and indicates the major mystery of Wicca, that death is not the enemy, nor is it the end. Witches, by their confrontation with death, and coming to love it, find the keys to the essential magical power of transformation, and in this Wicca is in a great magical tradition, as Luhrmann puts it:
‘Proserpine, Inanna: their names run like ore throughout magical practice. Magical rituals and writings make much of this theme of voluntary descent, destruction and rebirth, transformation and return. The destructive underworld must not be feared, but entered.’  (Tanya Luhrmann: Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft. Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1989, p.95)