The Gods of the Wild Wood

She is the river

He is the road

I stand between them

Neither one nor the other

But guided by both.

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Several years ago, I met the Stag Queen. She was silver and she was wild beauty, though “she” was never right for her. Still, she told me it was acceptable, and so it is what I use. I have seen her as a stag with a mighty rack of antlers, with long silver fur. I have ridden her to the river, and it was there I met the Other, the Dark Hound.

For years, I have questioned who these spirits are, though I have strongly felt them to be deities. I have laid shrines to them, know that the solstices are important to their worship, yet I know very little of either of them.

A few months back, I came across a picture that made me pause. Though, it was less the picture and moreso the description that came with it. The wild wood, the horned woman, she of the hidden paths…these connections made me pursue the thread of the Stag Queen as Elen of the Ways, from the Welsh pantheon. I put out a call on tumblr requesting confirmation that there was historical precedence for this goddess and asking for resources. The answers that came back were mostly affirmative, and a few offered me the resources I had requested. I ordered the two books recommended and began to read…

…And it fell flat. The book was a slog, full of “historical” claims without historical evidence, and the information made me uncomfortable, for it did not feel right with what I knew of the Stag Queen. Some things fit, many things outside the book fit, but it was still akin to putting a square peg into a round hole.

tumblr_najaj8IYTy1rxekheo1_500As I began this research, I perused the Welsh pantheon looking for an idea of who the Dark Hound might be. I know that he and the Stag Queen were of the same pantheon, so if I had a breakthrough with one, I knew that the other would follow shortly.

Eventually, I narrowed it down to two options: Gwyn ap Nudd and Arawn. I began to operate under the assumption he was the latter, especially after coming across a prayer that fit the epithet I most strongly associate with the Dark Hound: He Who Waits. Arawn fit much more strongly than Elen fit for the Stag Queen, though I still felt intrigued by what was offered by Gwyn ap Nudd, especially his blackened face, which felt appropriate given what I know.

And yet…two weeks ago, as I sat at my desk that Friday while working from home, I turned and faced the wall of shrines behind me. I looked at first the shrine to the Stag Queen, and I said aloud that I did not believe she was Elen of the Ways. And then I turned to the Dark Hound’s shrine, and said aloud that I thought it possible that he was Arawn or Gwyn ap Nudd. Still, the idea has been spinning in my mind as I ponder who they might be, for no other Welsh goddess fits with what I know of the Stag Queen, and I know they are of the same pantheon and intrinsically linked.

Which leads us to Saturday.

After our Persephone ritual, we sat and talked and divined and talked some more. Later in the evening, I found myself speaking with Brooke, expressing frustration over the Stag Queen and the Dark Hound. She listened then offered me the idea of Apollon and Artemis as the Dark Hound and the Stag Queen respectively.

I’ve wondered if the Stag Queen was Artemis in the past, though I never pursued it. Of all the goddesses that I have come across, Artemis fits the best with what I know of the Stag Queen: associations with hunter and prey; stag imagery; woodlands and forest imagery; silver, silver, and more silver; faint lunar associations, though she also insists upon solar; a sense of the chthonic; and a blending of gender, ending as neither female nor male, but both and neither. All things that have associations with Artemis.

And then Brooke shared something interesting with me. A few years ago, after she had stepped away from Kemeticism, I read of her encounters with a god she called “Lord Ghost.” He, too, was strongly associated with stags, especially a crown of antlers and bone, the same kind of crown I see the Stag Queen wearing from time to time. He was of the mountains, a strongly earthen deity. As she told me about him on Saturday, I felt drawn to it, as much of what she shared resonated with what I knew of the Stag Queen. And then she dropped the gauntlet: Lord Ghost was Artemis. She shared with me the Orphic hymn to Artemis:

[35] XXXV. TO DIANA [ARTEMIS]

The Fumigation from Manna.
Hear me, Jove’s [Zeus’] daughter, celebrated queen, Bacchian [Bromia] and Titan, of a noble mien:
In darts rejoicing and on all to shine, torch-bearing Goddess, Dictynna divine;
O’er births presiding, and thyself a maid, to labour-pangs imparting ready aid:
Dissolver of the zone and wrinkl’d care, fierce huntress, glorying in the Sylvan war:
Swift in the course, in dreadful arrows skill’d, wandering by night, rejoicing in the field:
Of manly form, erect, of bounteous mind, illustrious dæmon, nurse of human kind:
Immortal, earthly, bane of monsters fell, ’tis thine; blest maid, on woody hills to dwell:
Foe of the stag, whom woods and dogs delight, in endless youth who flourish fair and bright.
O, universal queen, august, divine, a various form, Cydonian pow’r, is thine:
Dread guardian Goddess, with benignant mind auspicious, come to mystic rites inclin’d
Give earth a store of beauteous fruits to bear, send gentle Peace, and Health with lovely hair,
And to the mountains drive Disease and Care.

-Source: http://www.theoi.com/Text/OrphicHymns1.html#35

It is line seven she drew my attention to: “Of manly form.” For Brooke, it fit that Lord Ghost, a deity she had assumed masculine or male, was actually Artemis, especially with the goddess being described as manly or masculine herself.

Then, our discussion turned to the Dark Hound. Brooke is a devotee of Apollon, in the Orphic tradition, and the mythology of the Orphics link Apollon with the image of a black wolf. We discussed the possibility of the Dark Hound being, possibly, a black wolf, thereby linking him to Apollon. What I know of the Dark Hound, which is very little, also fits:

You are the Unmaker

And you are breaking me

Piece by piece

Having waited so many moons

You carve into me

And unmake me

It is up to me to put myself together again.

-A poem for the Dark Hound

In the Orphic tradition, it is all about the Labyrinth, the deep darkness of the heart, where you are unmade and then put together again. Reading this piece I wrote months ago, when I was merely aiming to put down in words the ideas and thoughts running through my mind, I wonder if a part of me has known for a while, the idea that the Dark Hound may be Apollon.

I gave my personal book of prayers and notes to Brooke to read, showing her the two short prayers I had written for both the Stag Queen and the Dark Hound. Not knowing anything of either deity, she told me she would think these were written for Artemis and Apollon. And then she told me that she had kept quiet about this for quite a while, but that she had always wondered if these two deities of mine truly were Artemis and Apollon, coming to me in different guises than one might expect. And it made sense, and a part of me recognized a truth to this.

And still, I hesitate. There is something of the Hellenic pantheon that makes me pause before I take the step forward. Part of it, I think, is its popularity, and I often worry of whether I do something because it is my truth or if I do it because it is something that I have heard enough times that it becomes something of a truth. So, too, do I worry of the concept of hubris, though Brooke has explained it in a way that differs from what I have had foisted upon me in the past as its definition. It is, instead, now something I can  understand and perhaps even embrace.

Brooke lay the cards for me, confirming that whoever the Stag Queen is, she is very earthy, mountainous, and wild; she has the sense of the roots of the mountain. All these things I can trace back to Artemis. All of these things have a subtle ring of truth to them.

And yet still I am hesitant.

I am hesitant to agree that the Stag Queen is Artemis, that the Dark Hound is Apollon, though both I have felt drawn to since first beginning my way down this winding, twisting path. I wonder if I am so desperate for answers, for a face to put to the name, that I will accept this answer, not for truth, but because I wish it to be easier.

I have no idea who the Stag Queen is, nor the Dark Hound. It is possible they are Artemis and Apollon, though I still feel drawn to Gwyn ap Nudd of the Welsh. Elen has presented herself, but I do not believe she is the horned goddess I have felt in my life for the last five years. Of that, at least, I am sure.

It is possible, and I have wondered this these last few days, that Gwyn and Apollon are both the Dark Hound, both showing themselves to me as similar faces, and now is the time to accept them both into my life and on my path. After all, there is now an empty shelf on my wall of shrines, after I took down those for the land spirits and the ancestors yesterday.

Still, I don’t know. That’s part of the problem with this little thing we call religion, especially one as experiential as the various Pagan paths often are. In the end, though, all I can do is walk the path and pray that answers will come my way.

The Maiden’s Awakening 2016

For the last three years, once the crocuses bloom, daffodils spread like bright yellow wild fire, and the cherry blossoms burst into bloom, when night and day hang equal, I lay the altar down and bid welcome to Persephone as she returns to us as Kore. Last night, I joined seven others bidding her welcome back, spreading wildflowers behind her as she walked away from Hades and bid the flowers to once more spread across the earth.

Several weeks ago, Chase and I began to plan the ritual for Persephone-as-Kore for this year’s spring equinox. We used the basic outline of a Hellenic rite, from procession to offerings to closing, and tailored it to fit the space we had allotted to us and what we felt to be the most important. As the days passed and the time came nearer, our excitement grew until we were feverish with the desire for the 19th of March to arrive. Finally, the day came.

I woke early, despite having been up late cooking and preparing blessed water for the ritual the night before. The Boyfriend set up our bread machine to make the offering bread, and I packed the various items I had promised to bring for the altar: candles, libation pitchers, a bowl for the barley, and a plate for the bread. I checked and rechecked that I had everything and verified everything was clean and pure before the bread machine went off, letting us know that the loaf was ready to be brought out. It was later than I had wanted, but I finally left, burdened with bags of offerings and altar supplies. And despite the load, I was excited and thrilled for this day to finally be here.

Last year, just as this year, the forecast called for flurries, but unlike last year, we barely saw any snow, though the scents of cold and bones were on the breeze. I made the trek up to College Park to join Sionnan at her apartment to drop off the food, then we all went to the Fellowship Beyond the Star coffee talk at the local board game cafe, the Board and Brew.

This meeting was a special treat, as we had two guests from out of town in addition to our usual group: Penny and Brooke. I had met Penny the previous weekend when she and Sionnan had come down and I had shown them around Alexandria, but despite having known Brooke for a few years, we had not yet had the opportunity to meet in person. It was very satisfying and pleasing to finally meet her face-to-face, and I had a grand time talking with her throughout the day and the night.

Our Fellowship coffee talk is usually without a set topic, encouraging conversation to grow organically and go into whatever is in members’ minds at the moment. We discussed several things, including a mindblowing explanation from Brooke regarding Jewish theology and philosophy. We talked over coffee and tea and chai and good food, sometimes three distinct conversations happening at once. We were all enjoying ourselves so much, that instead of disbanding at 2PM as is our custom, we all opted to stay until after 3 o’clock to chat and talk and enjoy each other’s company.

Afterwards, we went our separate ways for the time being, mostly to pick up flowers for the night’s ritual. I had opted to bring a new daffodil plant, preferring to have fresh, living flowers to offer the Lady of Spring that evening, so I waited at Sionnan’s apartment building to pick up the food and take a few other items up to Chase’s apartment so everything would be ready for that evening.

The drive to her apartment is only about a half hour, and I came in with my arms full of food and eager to help set up the altar. Brooke answered the door as Chase was in the kitchen cooking chicken for the meal after, and her partner greeted me with a hug and warm welcome. As Chase and Brooke cooked, I put away the food I had brought and then began to clear off the table for the altar. We covered it in  white cloth, lay the earthen mound Chase had made in the middle, and set the libation glasses, basket for our wish papers, and the pillar candles on either side of the icon, which Chase gently placed upon the mound and we veiled in black cloth, wrapping the statue until she was covered entirely. We went through the ritual once more to ensure there were no issues or to work out any last-minute problems, then each to our own preparations.

Brooke had brought a wormwood elixir with her made by Sarah Lawless to help us achieve trance and a ritual mindset. I offered to be the test subject, and so two hours before people began to arrive, I down a short glass of wine with a few drops of elixir in it. (I felt comfortable with this after ingesting mugwort at the Witches Sabbat last year, and as someone also leading the ritual, would rather it be me to bear any ill effects than spread it around to the guests without at least some idea of what we were getting into.) I ended up having 19 drops throughout the night, well within the recommended 8-10 drops 1-3 times a day, and only noticed a calming of the mental beehive I typically call my mind. It helped me withdraw from earthly distractions and engage fully in both the ritual and the community meal we enjoyed after.

Sionnan and Penny were the first to arrive, bearing tea eggs and deviled eggs and wine and lavender candy spoons. We all sat in the living room enjoying bread and wine, cheese and meats, grapes and honey butter, discussing the ritual and other things, writing our wishes for the coming six months, what we wanted to manifest in our lives between now and the autumn equinox. Eventually, our entire group of eight was assembled, and we went through the ritual once more so everyone had an idea of what to expect. Brooke and I both blessed the holy water, with bay laurel and with silver, and I bathed myself in the lavender and rosemary scented waters, running it over my throat and wrists and hands.

And then it was time to begin.

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I stood at the doorway with Brooke before me, waving rose-scented incense over her. She stepped forward and then it was Chase, and on they went around the circle. Each was connected to the one before them and the one behind, bearing ribbons and flowers and wishes in both hands. They lay the ribbons behind them as they entered the ritual space, and then we began.

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I won’t go into detail of everything we did. It was highly experiential, and I don’t think I would do it justice to go through it here. But by the end, the icon was unveiled, libations were poured, and flowers were lay all across the altar. We thanked the Lady of Spring, our sweet Kore, for her gifts in our lives and then disbanded, but left the candles lit and the altar set. Chase set a chair before the table and invited us each to come into the space if we wanted a private word with the goddess after dinner. Throughout the night, I watched each of our circle silently disappear into the darkened room and have their private time with Persephone.

Dinner was divine, a pleasurable gathering of nine in the living room, sharing bread and wine and meat. We ate and we laughed, shared stories and spoke softly, threw the runes and laid the cards. I glanced at the clock at 9:30, and before I knew it, it was nearly midnight, though it had felt like only a few minutes had passed since I had last looked.

It was a wonderful night, full of laughter and reverence, full of community and personal piety. Midway through the ritual, I felt my eyes prick with tears, and as I spoke my own words in praise of the goddess, my voice broke in awe of this wonderful deity who had come calling me three years ago.

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Persephone has had a strong place in my life since then, and I am humbled that we were able to do such a ritual in her honor, to give such potent words and offerings to her, each of us.

Today, on the equinox itself, I cleansed my various shrines, washing them with the same sacred water I had made a few days before. I pulled down the skulls, the pomegranates, the darkness from Persephone’s shrine and laid it fresh with faux daffodils and soft pink roses. Each shrine was washed, the icons bathed, and the two middle shrines cleared off entirely. The land spirits shrine will be transferred to a cigar box courtesy of Bear, as will that of the ancestors. I have much to do with them still, but they are currently sitting on my working altar filled with herbs and offerings to consecrate them. Next weekend, I plan to gather several of the items I still need for them both and finish crafting them, but for now they will sit and I will wait.

For now, the middle shrine on the top row is bare, washed clean and waiting for whoever it is is meant to occupy that space. The shelf below it, though, has the barest hint of who will now be honored there, but that is a story for another time.

February in Review: Thoughts on Balance

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The card I drew for February in my 2016 oracle spread was Balance. I had had an idea of its intent when I drew it, but as with January, I asked someone to do a clarifying reading for me, in order to avoid my own personal biases that may occur if I were to do my own. My friend Sionnan graciously agreed to do not just one but two readings for me in regards to clarification of the theme for this month and my shadow work focus for February.

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Clarification about Balance: Death | Resistance | Growth

“So, some spreads are “balanced” spreads, where the left card and the right card are contrasted against each other, while others are “story” spreads, where the cards lay out in such a way as to write a sentence. I don’t decide what the spread is– I just figure it out once I read it. This is a balanced spread, contrasting the death and growth cards across the resistance card. What feels significant is that the skull and the jar are the same general shape, just reversed, rotated 180 degrees around the stone.

It almost feels like it’s being swept around the rock by the current.

The water rushes into the vessel as it rotates around, washing out the poisonous flames and noxious smoke.

It definitely feels temporal though, like you’re shifting from position A to position B.”

As February approached, I’d had a sense of what I needed to focus on this month, but as I said earlier, I wanted to avoid my own biases and get another opinion. The above spread confirmed my thoughts, but Sionnan graciously did the second reading, too:

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Shadow Work Focus for February: Water | Protect | Achievement

First thing I get is an impression of rising in elevation from sea level to land to the mountain peaks. The black feather is a crow feather, birds being one of the few beings that can access all three locations easily. Right now the crow is on the land, unlocking old, hidden paths for you. You’re coming up on some sort of significant point in your path. It looks like the midpoint, but there are only three cards so it’s hard to tell. Actually, no, sorry– You have just unlocked something. The next stage. Cue the video game music!

In the end, we agreed: I needed to work on my fear of death.

For the last several years, February has always been extraordinarily hard for me. Many years ago, a shooting occurred on my college campus. I was shaken up by it, though at first I thought I was fine. Now, after only a few sessions with my new therapist, I’ve been told that I likely have PTSD based on this event. It’s something that’s been suggested before, but now I had a professional making the comment, giving it more weight. I’ve struggled a lot with the idea of death and dying, even though the macabre has always fascinated me. So, too, is the theme found amongst the deities I work with and worship: Anubis, god of embalming, of preparing the body for burial; Persephone, Queen of the Underworld and consort of Hades, Lord of the Dead, Queen of shades and spirits; Hekate, the psychopomp of the dark moon, Lady of Necromancy; Odin, the Hanged God, Lord of the Breathless, He who Governs the Gallows; the Dark Hound, with his similarities to Arawn, the Welsh god of Annwn or the Celtic Otherworld, and who may very well be the same as the Dark Hound I have honored for several years; the Morrigan, Irish goddess of the battlefield, She of the Carrion Crow.

Death has always had its place upon my shrine, thought I kept my back to it, not wanting to look too closely at the darkness.

When I was in my early teens, I struggled with spirituality, with the concept of what happens after death. Having been raised a non-Christian and not yet aware of the non-Abrahamic options to me, I did not believe in Heaven, nor in Hell. So I lay in bed one night and tried to conceptualize the idea of Nothing.

I royally fucked myself up. There is no way to imagine Nothing, though I tried.

That has stuck with me ever since, and it is closely entwined with my fear of death.

But this month, Death has made its presence known, and there has been no way for me to avoid it.

I spent most of this month with the concept of Death in the back of my mind. Hard not to, with the anniversary of my school’s shooting coming up. But when my mother called me, for the first time in two months, to tell me that my grandfather was hospitalized and not likely to make it through the night, I had to sit down and take a good long look at myself and my relationship with death.

I didn’t know my grandfather well, and now I won’t get to. He passed away two days later, after stubbornly hanging on for two days, because that’s how my family rolls. I prayed for him to pass easily, solicited prayers from others as well, for his easy passing, a painless death, for peace for my family in this trying period.

My grandfather is the first close family member to die for me, the first family member I have lost. In his death, I found the push I needed to make a more conscious effort to become okay with Death, with my own mortality, something I have vehemently rejected for the majority of my life.


 

This last Saturday, I made a large first step towards my own personal peace with Death. Chase, Sionnan, and I made the trek up to Frederick, Maryland, to Hood College where they hosted a Death Café, something I have been wanting to do but too scared to do since I first heard about it a year or so ago.20160227_100326

We sat and talked with complete strangers about death and dying, about things that have held a stranglehold over my life for several years. We discussed green burial options, and the physicality of the body, about what we want done with them after we have passed. This has always bothered me, freaked me out, and made me deeply uncomfortable, this notion of my body past my time with it. But that’s no surprise, as I have always had a very physical sense of self. We talked for two hours, and I spent most of that time listening, chiming in here and there with my own ideas and my own experiences with death and fears of it. I think I spoke a grand total of three times in those two hours, most of the time staring at the tablecloth while I listened to this table of women discuss their experiences with death and the dying.

We three left the Death Café around noon, grabbing lunch in Frederick before heading on to Mount Olivet Cemetery. Cemeteries have also always been an intense place for me, a place so sacred (yet frightening) that I have never been sure how to deal with them. But having Chase there helped, as she frequents her own local graveyards and has a better sense of how, what, and why we do things there.

After parking, we discussed the gatekeeper of the cemetery, which was quite obvious with the large monument at the gates of Francis Scott Key, who is buried there, and Columbia, with her sons War and Music. We left pennies for these keepers of the dead. I slipped mine between my lips, coating it in my saliva, something that I prefer to always leave at a cemetery, which is a rare occasion. But it feels right, to leave a part of myself for the dead, and so I lay the slick coin beside the goddess’s foot and turned back to leave her domain.


We walked a good ways through the city of the dead, which went on and on for a while. We barely traversed a third of it, if that, in our hour or two of meanderings, talking in quiet voices of the dead, admiring the delicate carvings of stone, and sharing what stories we could parse from names and dates. As we headed back, Chase sang the hymn she had written for Persephone, for our upcoming ritual this equinox. As she sang, we walked, eventually pausing, the three of us, at the same grave while Chase sang the last line, and all was quiet.


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I may not be over my fear of death, but I feel less terrified of it than I did when the month began. My books have begun to arrive, books recommended to me or that I have found, on death, on dying, on the cities of the dead. Each is beautiful, in its own way, and though it scares me to delve into their contents, it is part of this longer journey that I must take towards death acceptance.