Wednesday, December 17, 2014

As Solstice Dawns in Knossos

Travel with me, across the world and back in time, to a Winter Solstice morning in ancient Crete...

The Throne Room in the ancient Minoan temple at Knossos

Today's Minoan Path blog post takes us back to the dawning of the Winter Solstice at Knossos many generations ago. Join the others gathered in the temple plaza, awaiting the miracle of Midwinter. Click the link below to read the post.

As Solstice Dawns in Knossos

If Minoan Paganism interests you, I invite you to come join the discussion on Facebook at Ariadne's Tribe.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Season of Trees

Ever since I was a small child, the Christmas tree has symbolized the winter holiday season to me. More than Santa, more than caroling, more than the nativity scenes that were scattered all over the town I grew up in, it's the tree that encapsulates the whole season. Why is that? What deep memory does this image speak to?

Our tree this year
I remember my first priestess telling me the 'Christmas tree lore' from her Irish Pagan tradition. She insisted that the Christmas tree was invented by the Irish when the Brehons (the elders who acted as arbitrators within the community) insisted that local residents tie packets of food to trees at crossroads so winter travelers wouldn't go hungry. Funny how everyone wants *their* tradition to be the one that came up with the idea of the Christmas tree.

I've also spent a lot of time listening to people argue about whether the Christmas (Yuletide/holiday/etc.) tree is a Pagan symbol that shouldn't be used by 'proper, God-fearing Christians' (not that I've ever been one of those). I even had one very sincere woman tell me that you can suss out the closet Pagans because they use live trees; apparently, in her world, Christians stick with artificial trees.

Come on, people, you're missing the point. It's a symbol that works. It evokes something very old yet still very relevant, even for folks who don't ascribe any religious meaning to the winter holidays. So what deep part of our collective memory does the Christmas tree tickle?

I find it interesting that the Christmas tree seems to overlap in the collective psyche with the birth of the baby Jesus, even though there's no mention in the Bible of trees of any sort associated with the birth scene. But trees are associated with divine births throughout the ancient world. Certain trees on the island of Crete, for instance, were revered as the birthplaces of deities, and pregnant women brought offerings to the trees in hopes of a safe and swift delivery.

One of my favorite deities, Dionysus, has a double birth story. The Minoan earth-mother goddess Rhea is said to have birthed him in her cave on Mt. Dikte, but he is also recorded as having been born beneath a pine tree, with a star in the sky directly above alerting the world to his arrival. Hmmm.

Modern Pagans tend to celebrate the rebirth of the Sun at Winter Solstice, weaving the scientific knowledge of the cosmos with the age-old mythos of seasonal renewal. Steven Posch recently shared a great blog post about birth trees that speaks to this subject.

But there's more to the Christmas tree than just the birth of a deity or the renewal of the Earth's seasonal cycles. There's a deeper Mystery here, a different kind of birth. You see, the tree is the World Axis. That's right.

Dionysos can show us how it works. In his earliest form he's a shamanic deity, a walker-between-the-worlds who helps us do likewise. To lead us to the Otherworld and its Mysteries, he grasps a low branch, heaves himself up and gestures for us to follow suit. We climb the tree, aiming for the star that is the doorway to the next world - the Pole Star, the nail that holds up the Heavens, the post on which the Cosmic Mill turns. And when we are ready to return from the transformational experience, the journey to the Otherworld, we climb back down the tree, birthing ourselves back into this world.

So when you look at your holiday tree, no matter what you call it (or whether you call it anything at all) know that you've found the center of the universe. And for this season at least, that door is open if you'd care to follow Dionysos on his journeys.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Southern Hospitality: Thou Art God/dess

I grew up in the American South, a region that has its own set of social rules distinct from the rest of the country. Much of this tradition comes from the Irish and Scottish settlers who filled the Appalachian region and brought their Celtic lifeways to the New World. Let me tell you about some of the customs I’m familiar with, then I’ll explain why we follow them and why they have spiritual significance, especially for Pagans.

One of the first bits of Southern hospitality I learned as a child is this: if I go over to someone’s house, especially during the holidays, they’re going to offer me food and drink. They’re not trying to show me up or ruin my diet; they’re being hospitable. I learned early on that I mustn’t insult them by refusing what they offer, though it’s perfectly acceptable to have only a small serving.

My great-grandparents, Jonathan and Martha Dukes,
displaying Southern hospitality at the celebration
of their 50th wedding anniversary

If someone brings food over to my house when my family is in distress (say, during an illness or after a death in the family) I will always return the carefully-cleaned dish as soon as possible. What’s more, I’m honor-bound to make sure I don’t return it empty. It may contain an item as simple as a card with a favorite recipe or a small container of herbs or spices, but the rules of Southern hospitality dictate that it must contain something.

If a friend or neighbor does me a favor – helps me dig up a garden bed or looks after my pets while I’m away, for instance – I will be sure to provide some kind of offering in thanks to them. For a small favor I might give them a loaf of my homemade pumpkin bread. A larger act of kindness might inspire me to have them over for dinner or make them up a gift basket filled with items I know they would like.

One of the more unusual bits of old-fashioned Southern hospitality, and one that is dying out in the modern age, comes directly from the Old World: if I’m out in the park having a picnic and someone comes along and greets me, even if the person is a stranger, I might feel obliged to invite them to join me in my meal. Why on earth would I do such a thing?

The Celts believed that the gods walk the earth among mortal humans on a regular basis, taking the guise not just of ordinary people but of the lowest among us – beggars, tramps, wanderers. If I were to turn someone away and refuse to feed them, not only would I be guilty of a lack of compassion, I might also be directly slighting the gods themselves.

A bit of Southern hospitality
at my husband's ninth birthday party

So you see, it’s not about ‘evening the score’ or making sure you don’t owe anything to anyone; it’s about generosity and sharing, and about recognizing the deity in each and every person. What if the friend who came over to your house really was a goddess? How would you treat her? What if the neighbor who helped you trim that tree really was a god? And especially, what if the homeless person in the park was a deity in disguise? How would your response to them be different than if they were a mere mortal?

The phrase ‘thou art God’ may have been popularized by the novel Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein but it incorporates a much older concept: each and every one of us carries the spark of the divine within us. My favorite book that incorporates these concepts is set in Ireland: The Hounds of the Morrigan by Pat O'Shea. In Ms. O'Shea's story, the gods really do walk alongside ordinary humans (kids, in fact) in the guise of ragged tramps, and they have plenty to teach about the difference between what someone appears to be and what they really are inside.

The rules of Southern hospitality simply remind us to behave as if we remember that fact. And it’s a good thing to remember, don’t you think?