H – Holy Days and Holidays (PBP week 15)

Most pagans are aware of the recent Fox news comments about Wiccans that brought down the wrath of our community.

One of the comments that caused such offense at the time was from a woman who said, to paraphrase (because I watched the thing once and that’s usually once too often for a Fox story), “I can’t take any religion seriously whose most sacred day is Halloween.”

Now, it was obvious when she said this that she was ignorant of, or at least playing on her audience’s ignorance of, the difference between the two Samhain and Halloween.

The modern secular celebration of Halloween consists, in part, of many folk customs that were originally connected to the Celtic festival of Samhain, but have been divested of their sacred meaning.  So now, on one hand we have a fun night of dressing up in costume, overdosing on candy, and trying to scare ourselves silly; while on the other hand there is a solemn marking of the thinning veil and an night of honoring and communing with ancestral spirits.

Most pagans, I think, will acknowledge that despite the origins of the secular holiday, it no longer really has anything to do with the sacred one.

The Christian holidays of Easter and Christmas, too, have many folk customs tied to them.  In their case, the folk practices tend to come from faiths practiced before Christianity was adopted.  So we hunt for eggs on Easter, and celebrate the fertility of spring because that’s what our ancient ancestors did on Ostara.  But this has become the secular side of the holiday.  No one, outside of the pagan community, connects these activities with the sacred meaning of Easter.  For most, it is a day of overeating and chocolate.

My Sweet Lord by Cosimo Cavallaro; photo credit unknown

My Sweet Lord by Cosimo Cavallaro; photo credit unknown
(Because I am in love with this image and have to add it to any post I make about Easter.)

For devout Christians, Easter is a both solemn and joyous celebration of Christ’s sacrifice on behalf of humanity.  Its timing is not directly based on the spring equinox, but rather the Jewish holiday of Passover.  Thus Christ is symbolically connected to the lamb sacrificed at the beginning of Passover.

Claiming that the festival in honor of the most sacred mystery of their faith was “stolen” from pagans because of the bunnies and eggs – the (now) secular folk customs – is deeply offensive.

I don’t blame pagans for wanting to score some points off of the dominant religion in their part of the world.  Many pagans have endured ridicule or worse at the hands of the majority and it’s only human to want to share that wealth.

But we can understand the difference between Samhain and Halloween, why can’t we acknowledge the same thing for the holidays of other faiths?  Is the shared name really that confusing?

I blame the English language.

We all know that the word “holiday” is derived from, and still almost identical to “holy day.”  But “holiday” has taken on new meanings beyond the sacred one.  To most English speakers “holiday” now means a day off, a vacation – happy fun time.

I think this might be part of the reason it’s so easy to look at the cultural holidays being celebrated around us and only see the eggs and chocolate and assume everyone has forgotten the “real” meaning of the day – whatever we believe that to be.

We know our holy days are still holy, but we have trouble respecting the sacredness of the holy days of other faiths.


Anthesteria 2013

I have to confess, I’d been worried about this Anthesteria.  I wanted to celebrate it properly, but I just didn’t have the emotional or financial resources to put together a major ritual at the moment, much less a three day festival.  In the end, I decided to keep things casual and see what happened.

The first day, Pithoigia, went beautifully.  Early in the day, I found the ideal wine – a locally made organic sangiovese, well within my very limited budget.  (I’ve never met a red wine grape I didn’t like, but I’ve got a soft spot for sangiovese.)  I live well north of the wine regions of California, so I had expected any local wines to be hard to find or pricey, likely both.  I took the fact that this was neither, and my favorite varietal to boot, as a very positive omen.

I gathered some ivy and wild flowers for the shrine.  The flowers were still pretty sparse at this time of year, so I supplemented them with clippings from some neighbor’s gardens.  The result was quite lovely. (I took some pictures, but the only ones that turned out were of the dolls.)

My husband joined me for the celebration itself.  We opened and drank the new wine, ready poetry in honor of Dionysos, listened to the Doors, and danced badly.  Later, there were more intimate celebrations.

A triumphant night!

Day two, Khoe, was problematic.  I had a job interview first thing in the morning, and guests joining us for dinner later in the day, so I was unable to really get in the proper frame of mind.  I made dolls for Erigone during my dinner party (much to the amusement of my guests), and my husband and I made plans to take them to the park and hang them later that night.

Unfortunately, but the time our guests had gone home, Francis was feeling quite sick.  So ill, in fact, that I wasn’t comfortable leaving him alone.  I had to improvise.

I went alone to my shrine and performed my rite in total silence.  This was eerie and surprisingly effective.

Drinking wine with Orestes and musing on his dilemma – divided loyalties and obligations.  I thought on my own obligation and desire to be a good wife conflicting that night with the desire and obligation to be a good devotee of Dionysos.  I was grateful that, unlike Orestes, I was able to come upon a compromise that I felt did right by both.  I drank my wine – all in one swallow, which was an interesting experience – and shouted praise to Dionysos.

Afterwards, I went outside in the rain and hung the effigies I had made earlier that night from a small tree in the yard.  In lieu of swinging for Erigone, I made a vow to write a post for this blog – thus remembering her and sharing her story with those who perhaps did not know it.

On the final day, Khytroi, Francis and I watched Schindler’s List and remembered the dead.  I thought of my immediate ancestors, those I had known in life, and mourned the fact that I could only remember my grandparent’s faces as they existed in photographs.  Then I got a very clear image of my grandmother laughing happily.  They all started to laugh – my grandfather, dad, my uncles – it made me feel much better.

Later, I made panspermia and took it to the cemetery to offer it to Hermes and the spirits of the dead.  I was planning to visit a particular spot in the cemetery that was off to one side and shielded by some trees.  I am still a little self conscious about public ritual and figured this would offer some privacy.  When I got to the cemetery, the trees in question – which I had only half remembered – turned out to be giant pines, covered in climbing ivy.  Again, a good omen.

As soon as I made the offering and directed the keres “to the doors”, I felt lightened.  The headache I had had all day eased up.

I could feel spring at hand.

E – Erigone (PBP week 9)


Erigone by Charles-Antoine-Joseph Loyeux

Erigone by Charles-Antoine-Joseph Loyeux

Erigone is a minor figure in Greek mythology as a whole, but important in the cult of Dionysos.  She is remembered on the second day of Anthesteria.

For those unfamiliar with her story, here is a short version:

The First Wine Drinkers Dionysos, Erigone, and Icarius. Photo credit unknown.

Erigone was the daughter of Icarius, who was the first wine maker (and who shouldn’t be confused with Icarus, who flew too close to the sun.)  Dionysos taught him this art as a bride price for Erigone, who the God had fallen in love with.  When Icarius shared the new drink with his Athenian neighbors they became greatly intoxicated and, unfamiliar with the sensation, thought that they had been poisoned.  They formed and angry mob and set upon Icarius, murdering him.  Erigone looked everywhere for him, until the family dog, Meara, led her to his body, which had been thrown down a well.  In despair at her father’s death, Erigone hanged herself.  The dog threw itself into the well and drowned.

Dionysos, as one might imagine, was greatly angered and cursed the city of Athens.  The land became barren and all the daughters of the city went mad and hanged themselves.  The king of Athens, despairing for his city, went to Delphi to learn what caused this curse.  Upon being told that it was due to the  fate of ErigoneOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA the king instituted a festival in her honor, in which dolls were hung from trees in lieu of the daughters of Athens.  Young girls would sit on swings, emulating the motion of her body in death.  Thus Dionysos was appeased and his punishment was lifted.  The God further honored the family by placing them in the stars as the constellations Virgo (Erigone) and Boötes (Icarius), and the star Procyon (Maera.)

Today, on the second day of Anthesteria, we hang dolls and ribbons from trees and we swing in the memory of Erigone, Icarius, and their loyal dog.

I did not know this story until I began to prepare for the celebration of my first Anthesteria.  While women such as Daphne, Ino, and Psyche are well known, even in this day and age when a classical education is considered an extravagance, Erigone is much more obscure – at least outside of Hellenic circles.

Since our introduction, however, Erigone has come to mean a lot to me.  As I wrote in my earlier post about depression, on one level she symbolizes to me the nature of that disease – a grief or despair so great that all the joys of life cease to matter.  Or even to be comprehended.  On another, her story speaks to me of the divided loyalties that can be a consequence of a close relationship with the divine – in the end, her loyalty to her father outweighed the loyalty she had for Dionysos.

But on another, deeper, level her story gives me hope.  Like most of the mortal women who seem to have suffered for getting the attention of a God, Erigone actually became greater after death.  She was purified and transformed through the action of Dionysos.  She has achieved a human sort of immortality after all:  while her name is remembered only by a few, it is still remembered, and even more well known is her form among the stars – the constellation Virgo.

When real life collides head on with the important stuff…

Nothing like a job interview at 9AM the morning after a night of sacred revelry to make a girl feel really at her best.

I was going to try to imbibe moderately last night, you know – just enough to be polite.  Yeah….  right.  One doesn’t worship Dionysos moderately.  One worships Him with everything they are.

Still, He took good care of me.  The hangover was very mild, and unnoticeable at the interview.  I think it went well.

Tonight is… problematic.  We have social obligations that can’t be cancelled and do not mesh well with the spirit of the day.  Thinking of dining with guests then supping with Orestes after.  After that, the park – dolls and swinging for Erigone, and then the crazy sex.

We have the best holidays.  Even the really disturbing ones.  No, especially the really disturbing ones…

As for the job interview, that’s now in the hands of the Gods – which is really the best place for it to be.

Why I Celebrate Christmas

christmas 2007

Aubs at Mystical Bewilderment made an interesting post recently about pagans and polytheists attitudes towards Christmas.  I touched on the following briefly in the comments to that post, but I wanted to elaborate here.

I had a great time celebrating Christmas this year. It was the first Christmas I got to spend with my mother in over 20 years, and she really enjoyed how much we were all getting into it.

So, part of the reason I celebrate is because Christmas is fun and it makes the people I love happy. And though, while I was growing up, my mother never let us forget that Christmas was about Christ first and foremost, our family’s celebrations were never overtly religious.  She’s the quiet sort of Christian.  We did all the secular stuff – tree, lights, cookies, presents, dinner, more cookies – but we never went to church.cookies The closest we ever came to actual religion on Christmas was one small nativity scene (a gift from my paternal grandmother who was afraid for me being raised by “heathens”) and some of our favorite carols. So, like Aubs, I don’t come with the religious hang ups many people have about the holiday.

For the last few years prior to this one, I’ve been feeling a strong desire to celebrate Christmas.

Not in spite of my religious beliefs, but because of them.  This is not from some misguided idea that Christmas is “really” a pagan holiday and should be reclaimed in the name of the Goddess – or whatever.  Rather, it has to do with my feeling of obligation to my community and a henotheistic, pluralist view of deity.

It started about the time I began looking towards the Ancient Greeks as an inspiration for my practice.  One of the reasons I’m skeptical about reconstructionism is that many of the ancient polytheistic faiths, and certainly that of ancient Greece, were religions of the polis.  The whole city was involved in each festival, every citizen was obligated to play their part.  With the exception of the few household practices that we know about, this does not translate well to a few thousand practitioners spread all across the globe.

But my physical community does have one holiday a year that a large percentage of the population participates in.  Even many who aren’t Christian partake in the festivities.  Living in Arizona, when most of my neighbors were immigrants from Catholic countries and I was spending a lot of time socializing with an – also largely Catholic – Irish community it seemed only natural to join with them in their celebration by attending midnight mass on Christmas eve.  This year, back home in California, watching the lights go up all over the neighborhood I felt as though I was neglecting some sort of communal obligation until I put mine up.

Many ancient polytheists were pluralistic, to varying degrees.  It was OK to honor the Gods of one’s neighbors as long as one did not neglect a duty towards one’s own Gods.  I personally believe that more Gods exist than those I worship, and it’s never a bad idea to be on a deity’s good side.  So, unless expressly forbidden, I see no harm in singing an occasional hymn to the Christ Child.

Even less harm in decorating a tree and seeing my mother’s smile when we light it up.

Things I learned today…

1.  Pumpkins don’t have as many “guts” as one might think…

2.  They do, however, hang on to what they have rather tenaciously.

3.  I may have the skill to carve a pumpkin that looks exactly like Heath Ledger’s Joker, but I SO do not have the time.


4.  Its perfectly normal to anthropomorphize your pumpkin after carving it.

Its even OK to do so before.

But talking to your pumpkin WHILE cutting it up and scooping out its brains?  If you don’t find that incredibly disturbing, those around you will.  Especially if you also happen to choose this time to rehearse your evil laugh.  (Its about standards.)

Happy Night Before Halloween!

Sequoia Park, Eureka, CA

Spectacularly bad day today.  Only a few minutes to blog, so I hope the tarot post I just made makes some sense.  I’ve somehow missed a day on that project, way back in the beginning.  So tomorrow, cards 9 and 10 – I promise.  In the meantime, here’s a pretty picture for your enjoyment.

Tomorrow will be better – I’m carving me some punkins!

We’ve been decorating the house for Halloween, something I haven’t been able to do for years, and I’m having a blast.  Waiting for the neighbors to complain, though.  I’m literally two blocks away from the Pentecostal church I went to as a girl.