Essay – Winter Feast

The winter solstice, like all the feasts, is first and foremost an occasion to observe (and celebrate) the turning of the year. Psychologically, the winter solstice is an important milestone for me because it signals the beginning (although far away) return of the sun’s light and warmth. Here in the northernmost part of the Midwest, days will continue to be very short for the next two months. But at least I know that, astronomically speaking, the darkest times are past.

As a Druid practicing within the Greek culture, there is once again a sense of disconnect between what the majority of ADF members are celebrating and the historical practices of my hearth culture. Most of my fellow pagans are observing a tradition heavily influenced by the Germanic traditions, i.e. Yule or Mother’s Night. And this tends to resonate with me as well, so I don’t make too much of a fuss with regard to what the ancient Greeks did or did not do. Both within the pagan community and popular culture, the Winter Solstice is most often celebrated with general revelry (Saturnalia, Oreibasia), gift-giving, time with family, and a break from work.

To my mind, the feast is really comprised of two parts. The first is of gratitude and recognition of generosity, for what the earth provides in agricultural abundance and mineral wealth (this latter I always associate with the Roman myth of the chthonic god Pluto as provider of subterranean riches), reflected in the act of exchanging gifts. The second significance for me is that of rest, closure, and celebrating the end of the calendar and fiscal years.

 

 

 

Essay- Spring Equinox

The beginning of astronomical (and in come climates, meteorological) Spring represents a critical turning point in the agricultural cycle. Livestock reproduction is in full swing, milk is now more plentiful, and the disappearance of snow and ice mean that the earth is now accessible and warm enough to prepare for the sowing season.

Outside the domestic sphere, animal and plant life are also in the midst of a dramatic change. Wild animals have already (or will soon) produce their young, and plants are beginning to bud and bloom. Longer days and warmer weather have arrived or will very soon, and that means that the dangers of winter have nearly passed. The Spring Feast marks the beginning of a focus on fertility and new life.

Across the spectrum of Indo-European cultures, celebrations of the Spring Equinox seem to vary in importance. The Ancient Greeks celebrated the God Dionysus by opening new jars of wine, the Romans observed several feast days that tend to focus on vegetation deities, and the Celts mark the equinox through their mythological cycle. There is some evidence that the Norse celebrated the spring equinox; such an observance makes sense considering the importance (and dramatic nature) of the solar cycle among the Scandinavian cultures.

I lived most of my life in the American South, where the weather for the spring equinox varied from very warm to cool, but you could more or less count on the trees already beginning to bud, noticeably longer days, and signs of animal life all around. My experience of Spring in the South has heavily shaped my own practice, and even if the time of fertility and warmth are not as pronounced here in the Midwest, the psychological effect of the season remain intact.

Feasting has always been my favorite part of the Spring Equinox, whether that means a big Easter dinners with my family or having a meal with my fellow Neopagans. From a ritual perspective, my devotional practice aligns well with the Norse celebration of the solar cycle (or at least it aligns well with what has been speculated about it) and the Roman preoccupation with vegetation deities. Above all, there is a distinct notion of awakening, and that is always my guiding principle.

Essay – Fall Feast

The last of the harvest festivals marks the end (or beginning) of the agricultural year and the turning point from which a period of fertility, growth, and abundance gives way to a fallow time of rest, darkness, and regeneration. The festival is most commonly referred to as Samhain, and the mythology, lore, and customs most commonly associated with the season and its secular counterpart, Halloween, are derived from Celtic and Germanic Pagan traditions.

For most Neopagans, the Fall Feast is a fire festival which marks the end of summer and preparations for the perilous winter to come. In earlier agrarian societies, harvests were stored and animals are slaughtered in order to ensure survival through the long, cold season. Of course these cycles are still repeated, but 21st century Neopagans such as myself are no longer as spiritually connected the agricultural processes or animal husbandry which lie at the heart of the feast.

In the spiritual sense, the Fall Feast is generally celebrated by Neopagans as the time when the division between life and death is least pronounced. Put another way, the Fall Feast brings into sharp relief the frail nature of life and its dependence on the cycles of life and death. Animals must be slaughtered for food, vegetation must succumb to the cold in order to regenerate, and the question of whether or not one will survive the coming winter surfaces.

The idea that the spiritual world or realm of the dead is accessible to the living at this time derives from Celtic tradition, and this concept has heavily influenced spiritual and secular celebrations of the feast. Ancestor worship, divination, and magic are common themes for this High Day. Masking, revelry, and fear of the restless dead are also elements of the broader celebration.

A direct and commensurate celebration to the Fall Feast of the Celtic and Germanic traditions is elusive within Hellenic Paganism. The agricultural cycles of the Mediterranean do not align closely to those of cultures in the more northern or western regions of Europe, so Hellenic Druids are forced to make a choice: recreate (as best we can) the culturally-appropriate festivals of Thesmophoria or perhaps the Eleusinian Mysteries (of which we know virtually nothing), or adapt the practices of the Ancient Greeks to the rubrics of the more widely-celebrated Fall Feast. I choose the latter option.

In my practice, the Fall Feast occurs within an agricultural cycle and climate similar to that of Northern and Western Europe. By the end of October, the frosts have arrived, the fields are harvested, and meteorological winter has begun.  The days are noticeabley shorter, and it is nearly dark by the time I arrive home from work everyday at 5PM. This trend of decreasing sunlight is dramatic this far north, and it has a pronounced effect on my mood. I know that it will be almost two months before the light begins to increase, and I settle into a habit of sleeping longer and spending much more time indoors.

For my Fall Feast, I honor Demeter, the Goddess of grains, fruits, and cultivated vegetation, as well the myth of Kore/Persephone and Hades, which for the ancient Greeks explained the seasonal change from summer into winter. I embrace the dying of one year and the rest that must come before the commencement of the next. I find it natural and fitting to also celebrate my ancestors at this time. I also lean into the magical and divinatory significance of the season because this is a liminal time and the hinge upon which the agricultural season changes.

 

 

Samhain at Circle Sanctuary

For the past few months, I’ve been bellyaching about my need for a critical mass of pagan folks during the High Days. Even though I enjoy solitary rites and small group rituals, I find that I occasionally need to experience the kind of energy that only comes from being around a big ol’ group of pagans. So off to Circle Sanctuary I went.

Circle hosts a three-day Samhain event that begins on Friday with the Witch’s Ball. I had to work on Friday and had an hour and a half drive to get there, so I arrived around 9 PM. The Witch’s Ball is a great party! About a hundred or so folks in costume, a live band, and lots to eat and drink. I met some cool cats and enjoyed sitting around the campfire with a group of shamans from Chicago.

Saturday’s program was markedly different from anything I’ve done for Samhain before. Instead of a unified and focused group ritual, the ministerial team created an experience that allowed for spontaneity, could accommodate a large group, and let participants design their own Samhain rite.

We began the evening with a mute supper. All of us, around 130 or so, were seated inside a large heated tent (the temperature had dipped into the low 30s so we were grateful for this). We sat, were served, and ate in complete silence. I’ve experienced a similar meal during Buddhist mindfulness retreats, but this was the first time I’ve done so in a pagan context.

The purpose of the silence was to mentally prepare us for the focal point of the night: communion with spirits/ancestors/deities (depending on the variety of pagan) and the transmission of oracles.

After our supper was complete, we gathered inside the tent again to drum and chant. We were introduced to a team of “twilight” folks, men and women who were ministers of some variety, who would take us one-by-one to visit an oracle should we want to do so.

This was a nice touch. When I knew the time was right to see the oracle, I was greeted warmly by a witch in a pointy hat who took me on a short walk to see the oracle of my choice. As we made our way to the temple room, she asked me if I needed any help formulating my question for the oracle. I told her I was in good shape.

The oracle experience was based on Greek culture. It was by no means a reconstructionist motif, and my Hellenic hardline friends might have been displeased, but I thought the design was creative and genuine.

Three oracles were present, each one representing a different aspect of the fates in Greek and Roman mythology. Clothos, the spinner, was dressed in white and, we were told, was there to guide those concerned with beginnings. Lachesis, the measurer, wore red and was there for those who were struggling to find their way in present circumstances. Atropos, the severed of threads, was adorned in black and was the oracle to see if you were focused on an ending of some kind.

I won’t tell you which oracle I saw or what she said, but I walked away from the experience feeling satisfied and overcome with awe. This was a very, very well done ceremony.

Afterwards, we had the opportunity to visit the Circle labyrinth, which was candlelit and decorated in harmony with the theme of the Fates and divination. As people drifted out of the labyrinth and towards the bonfires (one of which was massive!) they were mostly quiet, speaking sometimes in vague terms about their experience with the oracles.

The drumming and chanting continued under the main tent as I made my way home for the night, driving on dark and desolate roads under a bright half moon and the cloak of a frost-kissed night.

This was the best Samhain I’d had in a long time.