The autumn equinox coincides with the start of the major ceremonies of the Eleusinian mysteries. These ceremonies, which in Greco-Roman times attracted a huge number of attendees from all over the Mediterranean, guide participants into a deeper understanding of Persephone’s descent into the underworld. There are several versions of the myth of Persephone, which is too long to explain in detail here. The gist of it is that Persephone as a maiden goddess or “Kore” is painting flowers in a meadow when the earth opens up and the death god Hades abducts her. He demands that she stay in the underworld with him as his wife and queen and refuses to let her leave. Persephone’s mother Demeter is inconsolable and neglects her duties as mother of vegetation, leaving crops to wither from lack of rain. As the earth becomes more and more parched, the gods become alarmed, and finally the chief god Zeus orders Hades to relinquish his captive. Unfortunately Persephone has eaten a pomegranate seed while in the underworld, and the laws there decree that no one who takes food in the land of the dead may return to the living. Given the urgency of the situation, a compromise is nevertheless reached: Persephone will spend four months of every year in the underworld with Hades and will spend the rest of her time on earth with her mother Demeter. From Apollodorus:
When Zeus commanded Pluto [Hades] to send Core [Kore] back up, Pluto gave her a pomegranate seed to eat, as assurance that she would not remain long with her mother. With no foreknowledge of the outcome of her act, she consumed it… Persephone was obliged to spend a third of each year with Pluto, and the remainder of the year among the gods.
Persephone’s return to the upper world in February coincides with the lesser ceremonies of Eleusis.In addition to explaining the fallow period of the agricultural year, Persephone’s myth is believed to be an account of the merger of the Hellenic (Indo-European) pantheon with a much older one. The rape motif in the story underscores that the Hellenic takeover was a violent one that wrested power from women. In the words of Robert Graves, “It refers to male usurpation of the female agricultural mysteries in primitive times.”The pre-patriarchal Persephone was probably a triple goddess, with the maiden Kore her manifestation in early spring, the mother Demeter her mature aspect, and the queen of the underworld her death aspect. Note that Mediterranean goddesses were rarely depicted as hags or crones, even in their death aspect.Persephone’s symbols are many, but we are confining our attention here to the pomegranate. This tree, which is native to Afghanistan and surrounding regions, has been cultivated for at least 5000 years. It is probable that the fruit was traded even earlier, since pomegranates keep well and their flavor is enhanced during storage. Pomegranate trees grow easily from seed. They thrive in hot, semi-arid conditions, even in poor soil. After the pomegranate flowers, the burgeoning fruit has a pronounced crown. The fleshy red seeds are sectioned by membranes that are cavernous in appearance. The cave is a symbol of both the underworld and the womb. Red is the color of blood, the womb, and birth. Many ancient people in the Mediterranean and elsewhere painted dead bodies with the red mineral ocher to symbolize rebirth. Of course, seeds also symbolize birth, and the plethora of seeds inside the pomegranate make it an emblem of fertility.Provocative symbolism aside, the pomegranate is a useful fruit. The seeds have a pleasant, astringent taste that is not overly sweet. The seeds have long been used to treat tapeworms, and the rind can sooth irritated skin. The rind is also used to dye cloth yellow. The sacred trees of major goddesses usually have a long history of generosity to humans.SourcesApollodorus. The Library of Greek Mythology. Keith Aldrich, trans. Lawrence, KS: Coronado Press, 1975.California Rare Fruit Growers. Pomegranate.Durdin-Robertson, Lawrence. The Year of the Goddess: A Perpetual Calender of Festivals. Northamptonshire, England: Aquarian Press, 1990.Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin Books, 1960.Lust, John B. The Herb Book. New York: Bantam Books, 1974.From now until January 1st many people will be using pomegranate seeds in their rituals. The following video shows how to easily seed a pomegranate.
In pagan imagery, the broom is not just a symbol of witches, but of wives. The Celtic goddess Brigid has among her many functions the charge of housekeeping, and her followers report that they often see her with broom in hand. Women used to leave their broom outside the front door when they left the house, as a signal to visitors that they were not at home. The ordinary broom used for household chores, as opposed to the witch’s ritual broom, is married to the house; when a family moves it is customary for the broom to remain at the house rather than being brought along to the new location.Many people are familiar with the phrase “to jump the broom,” which means to get married, and this custom relates to the broom as symbol of housekeeping and mature womanhood. The custom of jumping the broom was common on the American frontier when ordained ministers were scarce. A couple might be awaiting their second child before their marriage became official within their church, and the broom served to sanction their union until then. Broomstick weddings were also common among African American slaves, who were denied “real” marriage by slaveholders and Christian authorities. The association of brooms and marriage has antecedents in so many cultures that it is impossible to trace the origin of the custom, other than to say that it almost certainly did not originate in America.In many pagan weddings today, it is the jumping of the broom, rather than the exchange of rings or the words “I do,” that is the core part of the ceremony. The couple, holding hands or with hands fastened by ribbons, jumps over a broom lying horizontal on the ground. While in the air the spirits of the couple become joined, and when they hit the ground that union becomes sealed in the physical world. Superstitions about broom handles touching the ground suggest that in the older ceremonies the jumping broom might have been elevated or propped against something.
The internets have been in a titter for a week, and no doubt every Blue Moon café, restaurant and tavern is in high celebratory mode. Really, the significance of the Blue Moon is that it is hard to categorize. Solar and lunar time only reconcile about every nineteen years, so there are twelve lunar cycles and some change in any solar year. Whether there are twelve or thirteen full moons depends on which day you start the calendar. Depending on the tradition (and the latitude), we label each month’s moon according to its seasonal significance. Thus the January moon is the “Wolf Moon”, the February moon is the “Hungry Moon,” the March moon is the “Storm Moon,” etc. What happens when you have two full moons in a month? You don’t know how to categorize the second one. It’s also an uncommon occurrence, occurring only about every three years.A Blue Moon is a full moon in which you do something you wouldn’t ordinarily do, and something that you probably won’t do again for awhile. When I had a large teaching coven, the women would circle with the men on that night, just to show that we were not categorically opposed to it (but still not willing to make it a regular occurrence).The color blue in lunar context has some significance. Red is ordinarily the color associated with the full moon (look at it closely some time), a phenomenon that was easier to see when the moon was closer to the earth. Red is a very powerful magical color, associated with the Mother and characteristic of the Dianic Tradition. White is the color of the waxing moon, associated with the Maiden, while black is the color of the Crone and the dark portion of the waning moon. Thus we have the three important magical colors of the Dianic Tradition and many others. Blue is a cooling color less frequently invoked, which nonetheless has its own important properties. If colors are invoked when casting a circle, blue is often linked with the direction of West. In shamanic traditions which are based on the number four, unlike Indo-European cultures, which are almost always based on the number three, blue is usually included as one of the four basic colors.A lot of pagans are saying that the Blue Moon has very special powers, but I disagree with this. In and of itself, the Blue Moon only has meaning if you accept the validity of the Julian calendar. How many of us do? I accept that I have to work with this calendar, to navigate the business and larger social world, but magically my calendar is marked in different time, beginning on November 1st. Other people may start their year at the winter solstice, or the spring equinox, or at some other time. What gives the Blue Moon its significance is the the permission people give themselves to loosen up, be unorthodox, try something new. This is the special energy that drives the Blue Moon.
Like Santa Claus, the Groundhog is normally celebrated only once a year. I recently drove through a place, however, whose entire claim to fame is the groundhog who bears the town’s name: Punxsutawney Phil. A statue of Phil stands at the center of the town square, and various memorabilia for tourists commemorates the town’s famous resident.Punxsutawney is an unprepossessing village in an economically depressed corner of Pennsylvania — not the kind of place most people would visit unless they were taking part in the annual pilgrimage for the spring oracle. I passed though the place en route to the Lenape powwow, and I had to stop because groundhogs, gophers and prairie dogs are important animals for me, animals that I use in magical healing. I have been ribbed for years about my “gopher medicine” but I adhere to the belief that power should be accepted in the form it comes in.With my meeting with the icon of Phil fresh in my mind, I asked one of the elders why the Lenape had asked the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation not to allow groundhogs to be hunted or harmed on state lands. I was told that the first animals came from inside Mother Earth, and the Groundhog was one of the first creatures to emerge from underground. Thus the Lenape do not hunt groundhogs, and refer to the Groundhog as Grandmother or Grandfather. It seems the German settlers knew the Groundhog was sacred to the Indians when transferring the Candlemas Bear or Hedgehog ritual onto this creature.I also learned last week that “powwow” originally referred to a talented Northeast Native healer named something that sounded like “Powwow.” He attracted large groups wherever he went, and many Whites started calling any Indian gathering a powwow. In some parts of the country the word has retained its association with healing. The Pennsylvania Dutch still refer to their visits to a natural healer as “going to powwow.” So I guess “groundhog powwow” would be another way of saying “gopher witch.”
I have another guest post at “Return to Mago.” The article describes my meeting with the Sumerian death goddess Ereshkigal.
Sweet apple-tree of delicate bloomThat grows in concealment in the woods,…While my reason had not strayed, I rested by its sideWith a fair gleeful maiden of perfect slender form.
— Black Book of Caermarthen XVII
These words, attributed to Merlin, are part of a spell invoking the aid of the apple tree in defense against a Saxon invasion. The “gleeful maid” refers to the womanly aspect of Nimue (NEE-way), who appears in Welsh romances as Merlin’s apprentice and sometime nemesis. Nimue is the white goddess of the Otherworld who brings sweetness and sometimes death. The apple tree is not so much her symbol as her manifestation. The Celts of the British Isles envisioned the afterlife as an island covered with apple trees in perpetual bloom.The flowers of the apple tree have a heady, pervasive fragrance that attracts legions of bees. The ripe fruit, which also has a strong pleasant odor, is fermented with honey to make traditional mead, the intoxicating gift of this lovely goddess. Trees which attract bees are usually associated with an important goddess, while goddesses associated with sweet-smelling flowers are often death goddesses. (The decaying corpse has a sweet odor.) Goddesses (and gods) associated with death are often revered by the shaman, because divination and magic require moving into incorporeal space. Intoxicating substances are sometimes used as tools for shamanic visioning, and this visioning is compared to a state of intoxication even when substances are not used. Small wonder that Nimue permeates the legends of the great magician Merlin!The apple tree, which is a member of the rose family, originated in central Asia but was cultivated widely in the early agricultural societies. The tree must be grafted to produce a reliable fruit; most apples grown from seed are sour or bitter. It is not known when the first apple was cultivated in Wales. Many assume the apple tree came with the Roman occupation, but this does not appear to be supported. A white flowering crabapple is native to the British Isles, so the legends may have originally grown around this tree. How long apple (or crabapple) trees have been worshiped in the region also cannot be known. The romances were penned by Christians in the seventh through the eleventh centuries, and the Celts absorbed a great deal from pre-Celtic cultures in their settlement areas. The hawthorn might also have been a precursor or stand-in for the apple. In one story Nimue imprisons Merlin in a tower of hawthorn bushes. The hawthorn is closely related to the wild crabapple: both are members of the rose family, both have white flowers, both bear small fruit, and both have thorns.The apple remains an important ingredient of modern witchcraft, especially prominent in Halloween rituals. The fruit is cut through its equator and placed on the altar flesh side up, so the five-pointed star in the center can be seen. This is the source of the sacred pentagram.SourcesMatthew, Caitlin and John. Ladies of the Lake. London: Thorsons, 1992.Meyer, Kuno, trans. Voyage of Bran. From sacred-texts.com. Originally published 1895.Scudder, Vida Dunn. Le Morte d’Arthur of Sir Thomas Malory and Its Sources. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1921.Skene, William F., trans. The Four Ancient Books of Wales. From sacred-texts.com. Originally published 1868.University of Illinois Extension. Apple Facts.