Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Aphrodite Shrine at Our Haven -- a history (and update)

Friends and long-time followers of this blog know that I am one of the Temple Keepers for the Aphrodite Shrine at Our Haven Nature Sanctuary in southern Indiana. I've posted plans and pictures, hopes and even heartbreaks regarding this beautiful little piece of paradise for years now.

Each year, as I, my family, and now even a loving and dedicated core of friends, come out to tend and beautify the shrine, I am awed and amazed at what a breathtakingly beautiful place it is. The entire Sanctuary is stunning, mind you. It is 175 acres of rolling woodlands in the hills of the southern part of Indiana. There are a couple of large fields that had been cleared years ago for farming by the previous owners, and they now serve as the primary camping and event fields.

Sometime between my first arrival at Our Haven in 2006 and my re-appearance in 2008 (at which point I made it my spiritual home), two women set the stones that form the altar of the shrine. These two women are incredibly dear to me -- one of them being one of my life partners, and the other being one of our closest friends -- although I hadn't met either of them on the Solstice evening when they set the shrine. They aligned Her altar to Venus (the Evening Star) as she set on the tree-line that Summer Solstice night.

Aphrodite's Shrine is within a larger circle called the Great Rite Spiral, which was established near the same time. A large stone Great Rite altar dominates the center of the circle, and spiral path made of Chinese hedgerows winds into it from the outside. The only problem is that after the hedges were planted, everyone thought they died. They got moved over, due to that belief, and then the entire area was allowed to be overgrown in weeds and tall grass. It's naturally a very wet space -- which the hedges like, but so did the marsh gasses. That was how it looked when I first saw it in 2008. Tall weeds around a massive rock. I had heard there was Aphrodite shrine in there, but I'd never seen it.

The first work weekend in March of 2010 saw about six of us pulling dried grass and dead weeds out of that space. My other life partner, Joe, wanted to start again on the hedges. But would you believe it? More than half of the originals were actually fighting for life under the nest of weeds. Their original orange flags were still marking their resolute stands, and they were determined to live. This was the day I got involved, and I've been a rather persistent advocate for that spot ever since.

April 2010 -- Before donations, and before foliage had come in.
Cleared of weed cover, the hedges grew two feet that year. I'm not exaggerating. They grow fast! I also uncovered some of the original altar decorations that the temple founders had placed there. They had gotten pounded into the ground. Seriously. But I cleaned them up and put them back on the altar. I brought out some of my own, too, including a small icon, because I had promised Aphrodite that she would have an image on the land. It wasn't made for outdoor use, and it got pretty weather-worn, but I think it added character.

Babalon Rising 2010, photo taken by Nick Vitori of Envy Graphix

Also by 2010, people had read my writing about Aphrodite, and I was in conversation with a couple of people who wanted to donate some money to the upkeep of Her shrine! Wow!! We bought a beautiful outdoor icon (Venus of Medici), a trellis arbor, and two climbing roses with donations alone. Our family contributed mulch and energy. We got everything put in by June, and it was lovely. Obviously new and young, but lovely.

Weeds literally covered the entire shrine. *sigh*

The wind knocked the trellis down, though, and we got so much rain between June and August that Indiana felt like a rain-forest. Aphrodite of the Gardens became Aphrodite of the Jungle. Our lovely shrine was overwhelmed in an ocean of weeds. I came out on retreat and battled them single-handedly for 2 and 1/2 days -- literally singing and dancing with the bees in the weeds. Pricking my fingers on datura occasionally was the worst part. Natalie was on retreat, too, and sometimes she would come sit on the Great Rite rock and drum or take pictures of the progress. By Sunday, it was all beautiful again, and I poured libations at the shrine (wearing what has become my semi-official "Aphrodite Shrine Work Dress"). I had even reset the trellis.

In the spring of 2011, we had terrible storms. The trellis came down and took out both the icon and the stone shrine. I had set it well, and it came down HARD. Trellis and icon were a shambles. We reset the stones and tidied up. Only needed to do a little weeding. We put in some more mulch. The shrine was getting easier to tend. The hedges, were getting enormous. They seem to grow a foot each time we saw them. In September, I found a replacement icon (Venus di Milo) and a marble base. We placed her at the Women's Goddess Retreat.

It's 2012, and we have worked on the shrine twice already. One was a weeding and mulching day. My partners and two friends who are Our Haven members worked on that at the first work weekend. It was a beautiful day, and a beautiful moment. We laughed and loved each other, and my heart was so full of gratitude for the many hearts and hands who have poured their love upon my Lady and upon the Land where She stands.

Last weekend, on Mother's Day, a good friend and her family planted two rosebushes at the shrine. They will be gorgeous when they grow and bloom.

Yesterday, my family and one of the same friends -- she's actually a coven sister -- filled in the entire center of the Shrine/Spiral with mulch and paved the spiralling pathway with pea gravel. The project was funded by the sweet friend, my Sister in Aphrodite, who founded the shrine with my beloved Natalie. It was another beautiful day, and the results are so startling, so stunning, so beautiful that I feel the touch of my Goddess in the work.

I am Temple Keeper, not because I have any claim or ownership, any special right or privilege over this Shrine. Indeed, I don't have those things at all. It's a public shrine within Our Haven Nature Sanctuary. I am a Temple Keeper because my heart is in that beautiful little piece of land, and I help to keep up the temple.

Friday, May 18, 2012

J - John Barleycorn Must Die #paganblogproject

One way to think about the Year Wheel is to look at the balladry figure of John Barleycorn. The stations of his life, as marked in the verses of the song below, are the Sabbats -- at least the ones dealing with planting and harvesting.

John Barleycorn Must Die!

There were three men came out of the west,
Their fortunes for to try.
And these three men made a solemn vow:
John Barleycorn must die.

They've plowed, they've sown, they've harrowed him in,
Threw clods upon his head.
And these three men made a solemn vow:
John Barleycorn was dead.

They've let him lie for a very long time,
Till the rains from heav'n did fall.
And little Sir John sprung up his head,
And so amazed them all.

They've let him stand 'till midsummer's day,
Till he looked both pale and wan.
And little Sir John's grown a long, long beard,
And so become a man.

They've hired men with scythes so sharp,
To cut him off at the knee.
They've rolled him and tied him by the waist,
Serving him most barb'rously.

They've hired men with the sharp pitchforks,
Who pricked him to the heart.
And the loader, he has served him worse than that,
For he's bound him to the cart.

They've wheeled him 'round and around the field,
'Till they came unto a barn,
And there they've made a solemn oath,
On poor John Barleycorn.

They've hired men with the crabtree sticks,
To cut him skin from bone,
And the Miller, he has served him worse than that,
For he's ground him between two stones.

And little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl,
And the brandy in the glass.
And little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl,
Proved the strongest man at last.

The Huntsman, he can't hunt the fox,
Nor so loudly blow his horn,
And the Tinker, he can't mend kettle nor pot,
Without a little Barleycorn.

You can hear a snip (or, rather, 3 snips -- I swear it isn't a re-mix) of my favorite version of this song at PayPlay. While most versions of this song sound like dirges, this particular version relays what I feel is the joy of spring and the celebration of harvest. Yes, the words are "John Barleycorn Must Die," but I suppose I like singing these lines with a big toothy grin.

J- Justice #paganblogproject

As a Libra woman, Justice is an ideal that is deeply embedded in my core values. I mean DEEPLY. Obnoxiously, sometimes.

Wait. I should back up and start from the beginning, perhaps. Why would Justice matter so much to a Libra, you ask?

The constellations of the zodiac have not always been  set exactly as they are now. Space is expanding, and the stars are moving, which means that those lovely pictures have shifted a bit on us over the millenia. Libra is the only sign of the zodiac that is represented by an inanimate object -- the scales. Before we pictured those scales as independent, we saw them in the hands of the Virgin (Virgo), whose name is Astraea (or Asteria -- the Starry One).Yeah, I've written about Asteria before. She's quite important to me, too -- both as a Libran and as an Aphrodisian.

Asteria wields something else, as well -- the Sword (although as Virgo, this is always identified as an ear of corn). She is the Lady Justice.

The Theoi.com entry on Astraea reveals that the Ancients regarded her as the daughter of Aphrodite, which makes good and logical sense, given Aphrodite's stellar associations. It also makes good and logical sense when we consider that Libra in "ruled by" the planet Venus and is therefore under Aphrodisian influences such as a deep need for beauty, grace, harmony and romance. Librans also sincerely require Justice -- at least, this one does.

My nose gets seriously off-kilter when I sense unfairness, even when it's in my favor. I might like to be pampered -- and I do -- but I can't abide that special treatment coming at someone else's expense. My need for equality and Justice is deep-rooted, and as it turns out, it is an Aphrodisian value.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

I- Initiation #paganblogproject

Initiation takes on so many forms in the world of modern Witchcraft, and it has so very many roles to fill. What form and function it takes depends largely on what you (or your coven/Trad) want, need, or expect from the initiation process.

Initiation as Graduation

It can be a marker of accomplishment in one's studies -- a validation and endorsement by a group. And I don't think that's an invalid thing for a person to want/need. We have ceremonies like that throughout our lives. Just because we don't ALL want it, doesn't make it wrong.

Initiation as a Mystery Tradition

Initiation can also also be an important immersion in a set of group mysteries and symbols that are difficult to transmit in other ways. This was the function of the Mystery Schools of the ancient world, and modern magical orders rely heavily on this system.

Initiation as a Test

It can and often is a series of trials to prove one's readiness to progress to a next level of study/work. In tribal cultures around the world, as well as in "modern" magical communities, initiations can be filled with a series of challenges -- ranging from physical to intellectual to emotional and even beyond -- in order to prove a candidate's worthiness to move into the world of adults or to truly claim the title Witch.

Initiation is ALWAYS a Beginning

Whatever else it may be, though, initiation is a beginning. To initiate a process is to start it, and we are starting a cycle when we enter the circle of initiation. We are starting a process within ourselves that has great weight and meaning. I think each Initiate's experience varies, because their reasons for beginning the next step are so different.Their processes and cycles have been different, but the commonalities along the road are part of what bonds Initiates to each other. "I've been where you are." or "We faced that trial together."

Star & Torch Society -- A Witchcraft Circle of Initiations

I had the idea a few months ago to establish an Initiatory System for solitary Witches who felt the "void" of not being able to experience the Mysteries of initiations at the hands of experienced Priests and Priestesses. There is more to coven work than just claiming initiations, for certain, but hear me out.

The OTO (Ordo Templi Orientis), of which my very witchy wifey and I are members, allows every free man and woman the opportunity to take certain initiations. There are 10 degrees in the OTO, and anyone is welcome to take the first 4. So, okay, ... what if we were to form an Eclectic Initiatory Circle?

Most versions of Craft have 3 degrees.We thought to adapt the same model for this Society:
1* -- Witch and Initiate
2* -- Simple Priest/ess
3* -- HP/S

Furthermore, each of the initiations draws on a cycle of myth, symbol, and traditional initiatory experience.

Initiators are trained to deliver the same initiations to everyone, working from the same ritual script.

This isn't just for the collection of degrees, though I suppose some will use it for that. (Some always do.) I'm really thinking of something in which the Initiations are self-contained experiences -- rich in symbolism and Mystery, lots of meaning to be discerned by the Initiate both during and after. With periods of time in between,  for people to continue their studies and grow.

Nothing can replace the initiations at the hands of the Gods, and coven initiations can't force those experiences to happen no matter how much a person has studied. What we want to offer is a Mystery experience of value and deep meaning to the folks who are otherwise unable to study with a group.

This will not be a teaching group. Witches are expected to study on their own, just as Magicians do within the OTO or other similar groups. Get a good basic understanding of the Craft. Pursue the interests that call to you. Do your Will. Prepare yourself for initiation by immersing yourself in your magic. What and how you study between your initiations is entirely up to you. To that end, the initiations are NOT "certificates of completion" of a course of study, the way they can be in some Craft traditions. They would be a system unto themselves, giving Initiates a place of common Gnosis, common Mystai -- and the opportunity to truly experience the revelatory cycle of death and rebirth that is at the heart of all initiatory systems. (It's one thing to know it academically, it's another to have undergone it.)

Let it be clear, as well, that I have no intention of ripping off the OTO. I mention them here because, as a means of initiating people into the Mysteries, and then giving them the freedom to study what most appeals to them, the OTO has a great system. It's very much what I have in mind here, except that we wouldn't be using the symbols and Mysteries of that Order, we'd be using the symbols and Mysteries of Witchcraft.

I - Incense Secrets #paganblogproject

I was very fortunate to learn some techniques for incense blending from my former HPS -- and I picked up a lot of my own tricks over the years -- tricks I'm going to pass on to you!

Okay, so basically you can burn just about any botanical and call it incense, and you would be 100% right. Simple incenses are most frequently resins, blossoms, leaves, woods, etc that are dry enough to burn and have either a pleasant aroma or an effect on the etheric body.

Blended incenses, though, rely on the interplay between components, and the each plant brings its particular attributes to the mix -- not just in a magical sense, but in mundane physical one as well. For instance, dried leaves burn really fast, while woods and resins smolder longer.

I was taught that the most advantageous incense blends consist of a CORE of 5 ingredients. You can use more than 5 in a blend, but start with the 5 basics for a good mix. You can remember these 5 through the acronym FLOWR.

F -- flower/blossom (This can also be dried fruit or berries. You're trying to get to that blossoming part of the plant.)
L -- leaf
O -- oil (Can be an essential oil, base oil, conditioning oil, etc)
W -- wood (Can be the bark or pith. Can also be a root or nut.)
R -- resin

I use a few ingredients, on occasion, that don't fit anywhere on this list, of course. But I always start with my 5 Basics. Other things I might include are a pinch of salt, a little forge scale (the black stuff that flakes off while you forge metal), hair/nails, blood or blood substitutes (like egg, pomegranate juice, etc), ground gemstones. You get the idea. Anything is fair game after the 5 Basics.

Does it always smell pretty to burn, say, sulfur and hair? Heck no! But when that's what the magic calls for, that's what I include. Plus, I make sure to ventilate with things that are stinky, toxic or overwhelmingly smoky.

Magic is often messy, and it is sometimes rank and rancorous. Of course, sometimes it smells and tastes delightful.

Now, *I* think it's fairly obvious that you want all of the part of your incense working toward the same magical goal, but maybe it's still worth repeating. If you've included an ingredient, it shouldn't ONLY be because you needed, say, a wood. That wood should support the work you're doing.

There are a few books that I used as invaluable resources when I was first learning this Art:

Cunningham, Scott. Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs.
Cunningham, Scott. Complete Book of Incenses, Oils, and Brews.
Hopman, Ellen Evert. A Druid's Herbal.