Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Honey Tree

Cybele, Rome 50 b.c.e.
photo Marshall Astor


This week’s goddess is Cybele (pronounced kye-bell), whose sacred tree is the pine. Cybele is the earth mother goddess of what is now western Turkey, who had a popular and longstanding cult that eventually spread to Rome. She had a lover named Attis, who was also her grandson, whom she loved very much, and she showered him with gifts and attention. Despite the pampered treatment he enjoyed, Attis eventually became enamored of a nymph, and he could not keep the liaison a secret from Cybele. She was furious, and she tormented him until in madness he tore his genitals from his body. Attis died from his wound under a pine tree.

The Turkish Pine is renowned for its role in production of a type of honey. Aphids feed on the sap of the tree and sweat a sweet substance that attracts swarms of bees. The love of bees for this tree can be compared to the love of Cybele for Attis. Attis’ self-castration is evocative of the bee’s reproduction. When the bee drone has finished copulating with the queen, his organ is torn from his body as he pulls away. The drone then dies of his wounds. The furious torment of Attis by Cybele may have been like the swarming buzz of bees.

At the opening of Cybele’s spring ceremony in Rome, a pine branch was carried into the city to represent Attis. During the week-long ceremony, male initiates to one of her cults would castrate themselves during frenzied dancing (think of bees) and throw their testicles as an offering at the foot of her statue. The worship of Cybele and Attis had a death-and-resurrection theme, with rituals of mourning preceding ecstatic rites celebrating Attis’ rebirth.

From Oskar Seyffert’s Dictionary of Classical Antiquities

Amid tumultuous music, and rites of wildest sorrow, they sought and mourned for Attis in the mountains. On the third day he was found again, the image of the goddess was purified from the contagion of death, and a feast was celebrated as wild as had been the days of sorrow.

From Robert Graves’ The White Goddess

The Goddess is herself a queen bee about whom male drones swarm in midsummer, and as Cybele is often so pictured; the ecstatic self-castration of her priests was a type of the emasculation of the drone by the queen bee in the nuptial act.

Stand of Turkish Pine
photo Sten

I recently ran across a blog entry (which I can’t find again; you’ll have to take my word) maintaining that the worship of Cybele belongs to transwomen and that any others who follow Cybele are wrongfully appropriating her. I have wanted to address this issue of ownership and appropriation in a general way for some time.

Regarding the rites of Cybele: since she had a cult of castrated priests, transwomen have a traditional justification for establishing exclusionary religious practices to this goddess. However, the worship of Cybele, which dates to pre-history, was spread throughout the Mediterranean by Greco-Roman times and included different priesthoods of women, men, and mixed-sex groups, as well as castrated males. There is justification, historically, for persons of any sex or gender to establish a cult of Cybele.

I’ve heard this same sentiment of proprietary worship expressed by women, particularly lesbians, regarding the goddess Diana and the supposed inappropriateness of her worship by men. Diana is well known for her preference for women over men, but she has had celebrated male followers throughout history, among them the Roman king Servius Tullius, who established a famous temple to Diana outside Rome in the sixth century b.c.e.

The objection has been raised by certain Western critics of paganism regarding the affinity of witches for the Hindu goddess Kali-Ma. The argument (which I actually have never heard from any Hindus) is that Kali is a Hindu goddess and therefore should only be worshiped by Hindus.

The hard fact of the matter, however, is that we none of us own our gods. They are promiscuous, meaning they love who they choose to love and extend favors of their own volition to those who please them. You can establish a cult, a circle, a religion or a ceremonial system and include or initiate whoever you want, but worship is ultimately an agreement between the deity and devotee. Nobody can change that. Violating the boundaries of a religious cult is wrong, and willful violations were sometimes punished with death in ancient Greece, but there is a difference between placing boundaries around a practice and placing boundaries around a deity. The goddesses do what they want. Go ask Attis.


Sources

Budapest, Zsuzsanna E. The Grandmother of Time. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989.

Durdin-Robertson, Lawrence. The Year of the Goddess: A Perpetual Calendar of Festivals.Wellingborough, England: The Aquarian Press, 1990.

Graves, Robert. The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1948.

Seyffert, Oskar. Dictionary of Classical Antiquities. Trans. by John Nettleship and J.E. Sandeys. 1882. http://www.archive.org/stream/cu31924028214652/cu31924028214652_djvu.txt

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Daphne’s Appeal to Gaia

Apollo is usually depicted with a crown of laurel leaves. Roman coin 56 b.c.e. Photo by Classical Numismatic Group.


I have egg on my face. I thought I had scheduled this essay to post yesterday, but for some reason it did not.

As a followup to last week’s quiz, I’ve decided to begin writing about how the goddesses in the quiz are associated with their respective trees. I will be starting with the Greek goddess Daphne.

Daphne was a nymph (a young priestess) of the earth goddess Gaia. She attracted Apollo’s attention when he warned her about the deception of a man named Leucippus, who had dressed in women’s clothing to penetrate her sacred circle. The priestesses made Leucippus strip naked, confirmed the deception and killed him, but Apollo in the meantime had become obsessed with Daphne. She did not return his interest.

Apollo’s ardor was persistent, and Daphne eventually fled in terror. As Apollo gained on her, she called to her mother Gaia to save her from Apollo’s rape. Gaia responded by transforming Daphne into a laurel tree. In remorse Apollo pulled a branch from the tree and vowed he would always wear laurel leaves in remembrance of Daphne. This is why Apollo is usually pictured with a laurel crown, and why a person of high achievement in the arts or another realm of Apollo is said to “receive laurels.”

From Patricia Monaghan’s The Book of Goddesses and Heroines:

A priestess of Gaea, this nymph led secret women’s rituals in celebration of the Earth’s femininity. But the mortal Leucippus tried to penetrate their rituals in female disguise. The all-seeing sun, who had ulterior motives for his action, suggested to the women that they conduct their rituals nude, to be certain that there were no male intruders.

So the mortal was found and destroyed for his sacrilege. Then the sun-god’s motives became clear. He accosted the beautiful priestess and demanded that she sleep with him. She refused. Apollo grew violent. Chasing her, intent on rape, he overpowered Daphne. But she cried out to the goddess she served, Mother Earth, and instantly was transformed into a laurel tree. The repentant Apollo thereafter wore laurel wreaths in his hair and honored the tree as the symbol of inspiration.

From Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths:

Apollo was not invariably successful in love….he pursued Daphne, the mountain nymph, a priestess of Mother Earth, daughter of the river Peneius in Thessaly; but when he overtook her, she cried out to Mother Earth who, in the nick of time, spirited her away to Crete, where she became known as Pasiphae. Mother Earth left a laurel-tree in her place, and from its leaves Apollo made a wreath to console himself.

Graves usually relates the more violent myths to Greek political upheavals:

His pursuit of Daphne the Mountain-nymph, daughter of the river Penius, and priestess of Mother Earth, refers apparently to the Hellenic capture of Tempe, where the goddess Daphoene (“bloody one”) was worshiped by a college of orgiastic laurel-chewing Maenads. After suppressing the college — Plutarch’s account suggests that the priestesses fled to Crete, where the Moon-goddess was called Pasiphae. Apollo took over the laurel which, afterwards, only the Pythoness might chew. Daphoene will have been mare-headed at Tempe, as at Phigalia; Leucippus (“white horse”) was the sacred king of the local horse cult, annually torn in pieces by the wild women….

The Maenads were priestesses who practiced ecstatic rites, often involving drugs or alcohol.

The story of Daphne and Apollo was popular amongst the Greeks and there are many variations. It is interesting, considering the cross-dressing angle of the story, that one of the priestess daughters of Terisias was named after Daphne. (Teresias was the soothsayer famous for transforming from man to woman back to man.) This was probably once a complex myth that we only have in truncated form.

Daphne and Apollo
by Gian Lorenzo Bernini 1625.
Photo by int3gr4te.

The Daphne myth was a fairly common theme in Renaissance art. The lyrics of this song by John Dowland (1563-1625) speak of Apollo’s unrequited desire for Daphne.

Rest awhile you cruel cares,
be not more severe than love.
Beauty kills and beauty spares,
and sweet smiles sad sighs remove:

Laura faire queen of my delight,
Come grant me love in love’s despite,
And if I ever fail to honour thee,
Let this heavenly light I see,
Be as dark as hell to me.

If I speak, my words want weight,
am I mute, my heart doth break.
If I sigh, she fears deceit,
sorrow then for me must speak:

Cruel, unkind, with favour view
The wound that first was made by you,
And if my torments feigned be,
Let this heavenly light I see,
Be as dark as hell to me.

Never hour of pleasing rest,
Shall revive my dying ghost.
Till my soul hath repossess’d
The sweet hope which love hath lost:

Laura redeem the soul that dies,
By fury of they murdering eyes:
And if it prove unkind to thee,
Let this heavenly light I see,
Be as dark as hell to me.



Sources

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin Books, 1960.

Monaghan, Patricia. The Book of Goddesses and Heroines. St Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1990.

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The Goddess and Her Sacred Trees: A quiz

Olive tree in Pelion, Greece. Photo by Dennis koutou.


Back when I posted the quiz on Bird Companions of the Goddess I had requests for a tree version. So here it is. This will be a bit harder, because I’ve only mentioned one of these trees on this blog. Match the tree on the left with a goddess from the right column.


Laurel

Birch

Olive

Myrtle

Ash

Cedar

Willow

Pine

Pomegranate

Apple

Rowan

Acacia

Linden

Sycamore
Laima

Nimue

Daphne

Athena

Persephone

Frigga

Aphrodite

Hecate

Neith

The Norns

Cybele

Hathor

Brigid

Ishtar



Answers are here.

Bonus question. Name the gods linked with these trees: Ash, Pine, Laurel. (Hint: they are also associated with the goddesses of these trees.)

Continue the tree discussion in the comments.

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On the Non-existence of Woman Hatred

Title page from the seventh edition of Malleus Maleficarum, printed in 1520.


I’ve been reading a long excerpt from the Malleus Maleficarum this past month. If the name sounds familiar to you, but you can’t quite place it, this was the prime resource manual used during the European witch persecutions. Written by two Dominican inquisitors, it became, as Charles Kors and Edward Peters say in their introduction, “the first encyclopedia of witch beliefs…constantly cited in support of those beliefs by Catholics and Protestants down to the eighteenth century.” Its usefulness for pagans today is limited. How much direct knowledge of witchcraft (outside of the courtroom or the torture chamber) either cleric had cannot be known, as this is a question that would not occur to most historians. The breadth of the authors’ theological knowledge, their familiarity with prior writings on the topic, and their understanding of various legal theories come across clearly. These two men took themselves very seriously. Reading their arguments it is easy to see how hard it would be for an accused witch to defend herself.

The Hammer of the Witches, as the book is also called in English, is essential reading for witchcraft students who reference legal, scholarly or ecclesiastic documents of the time, not because it has much credible information in itself, but because it delineates the stereotyped confessions that interrogators sought to coerce from their victims. In other words, it lays out the witchcraft belief that should probably be discarded, at least where it appears after 1487 when the book was published. I do not mean to infer that ecclesiastic writing on witchcraft prior to 1487 was sound, but this is the point where the distortion becomes re-distorted. Think of a stained glass filter imposed on an inverted black-and-white photograph.

I read the entire Malleus in the mid 1990’s (you can find the book in any mid-sized public library) and the thing that struck me most about it was the intense misogyny. It made me quite ill. The default male pronoun is not used here, and the hypothetical witch is almost always a “she.” The most emphatic condemnation is reserved for the village midwives, who in those days were the herbal doctors for ordinary people. They “surpass all other witches in their crimes” while at the same time “there is scarcely any tiny hamlet in which at least one is not to be found.” There is a long rigamarole averring that not only evil-doing witches, but witches who heal or break evil spells, are guilty of heresy and subject to prosecution. And the text is littered with remarks such as “Women also have weak memories; and it is natural vice in them not to be disciplined, but to follow their impulses without any sense of what is due” or (citing Seneca) “When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil” or “through this defect [bent rib from Adam] she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.”

But the authors of Malleus are not woman-haters, as they take pains to establish, and this is why I wanted to discuss the book. They freely admit that “When they are governed by good spirit, they are most excellent in virtue” and “they have brought beatitude to men, and have saved nations, lands and cities” and even “by faith led nations and kingdoms away from the worship of idols to the Christian religion.” The problem is that “they are more credulous, and since the chief aim of the devil is to corrupt faith, therefore he rather attacks them” and “since they are feebler both in mind and body, it is not surprising that they should come more under the spell of witchcraft.” The problem is not women per se, but the weakness of the flesh, since “All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in women is insatiable.”

The association of witchcraft with women did not exist in a theoretical vacuum. In places where witch hunts were most severe, eighty percent or more of those executed were women. While it is speculated that many of these women were marginal, vulnerable and powerless, Malleus makes clear that the Inquisition was attempting to target the most rebellious women, those women who clung to superstitions and rejected Church authority.

Even when systematic assault on women is at its most severe (widespread torture and execution under false charges), it is never framed as an attack on women. It is an attack on some commonly acknowledged evil (“carnal lust” or “the Devils’ corruption”) or an exultation of an ideal sentiment (“noble womanhood”). We do not live in enlightened times when women are no longer considered contemptible by the majority of people, because that time of outright popular contempt never existed.

This lesson from the witch hunts is relevant to the current assault on women’s rights, an assault most obvious coming from the Christian Right, but which is actually happening across religious and political ideologies. The slogans used are “religious freedom” or “free speech” or “pro-sex” or “the 99%” or even “equality”–sentiments no reasonable person can disagree with. But we have to look deeper, and examine what the actions and proposals being hidden beneath these flags mean for women. This what the slogan “Never again the Burning Times” really means: resisting systematic attacks on women’s freedom committed under the guise of accepted values.

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And What About The God?

Shiva lies on his funeral pyre while Kali prepares to straddle his erect penis. Note the sword, the necklace of skulls and her hanging tongue symbolizing her devouring nature. Painting circa 1800.


Sorry to be late in posting. Something came up that I had to attend to.

Many years ago the god Shiva appeared to me in a startling vision. This was not a fleeting glimpse of the deity, which I have frequently, but a long sojourn in his presence. I have since learned that when Shiva appears in this way, it is a sign that you may ask for any boon you wish, and he will grant it. If only I had known this, I would have asked for lots of money, but since at the time I didn’t know any better, I asked for knowledge. Specifically, I had a question that had been provoked by a recent trip to the art museum. The special exhibit on classical Indian religious painting depicted Shiva and Kali Ma, with Kali in coitus with Shiva, or Kali devouring Shiva, or Kali in coitus with Shiva while devouring Shiva at the same time. Like medieval artists who painted the Madonna with Christ Child again and again, Indian painters seemed obsessed with the theme of Kali devouring her mate.

So I asked Shiva, “Do you love Kali?”

“Of course!” he exclaimed.

“But she stood on your stomach,” I protested, “and she ate your intestines.”

He replied, “Everything belongs to her.”

Everything belongs to her. Something to think about for a week. Or a year. Or a lifetime. To me encounters with the God are about understanding, appreciating and accepting the Goddess. He is the model of devotion.

One of the things that is frequently said about Dianics is that we “don’t honor the God.” Consciously or unconsciously, this is meant to criticize us, and repeated over and over again, without reflection, it has become a form of slander. It reflects not only a lack of understanding of our tradition but a lack of understanding of the nature of worship itself.

Dianics do worship mainly the Goddess, in her many forms. Most (but not all) of the images on my alter are of feminine deities, and though I do ritual to the Goddess twice a day, months may go by when I do not invoke a male deity. Yet Dianics also believe in and acknowledge the God. As in many traditions of witchcraft, we consider him the lover of the Goddess, who gave birth to him along with the rest of the universe. Because the Goddess gives birth to all things, and takes all things back to her at will, she is complete within herself, and we see no need to summon God and Goddess together in order to connect with creative power. At the same time there is no taboo about mentioning or connecting with a god. Even the purportedly extreme defender of feminist witchcraft, Z Budapest, talks about the God at times and discusses him a bit in her books. Admittedly, there are a few Dianics who are absolute about not admitting male deities or images into their personal space, and many non-Dianics disapprove of this, yet the compulsion I see in other pagan groups to never invoke the Goddess without the God or vice versa is its own form of extremism. Regardless, worshiping the Goddess alone is not equivalent to “not honoring the God.” Quite the opposite, in fact.

Like me, the God holds the Goddess in highest reverence. She is his entire world, as she is mine. To view the creator of all things as incomplete does not honor the divinities within her creation. And to misrepresent her priestesses, to mischaracterize the living tradition dedicated to the Goddess–how do you suppose the God feels about that? Has he been honored by willful disinclination to understand and accept those who worship what is most precious to him?

There is a great deal of fear and resentment about the presence of a women’s religion, and the reasons are complex. Dianics do not demand that others feel comfortable with us. It would be better, however, if criticism were not cloaked in the hypocrisy of “honoring the God.”

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