On the feast of St. David

cimg4426-st-davids-cathedral
St. David’s Cathedral with Carn Llidi in the background (there are a couple Neolithic burial chambers up there)

I have a soft spot in my heart for St. David (Dewi Sant), the patron saint of Wales, and for the town that bears his name (St Davids, obvy). You’ll be hard pressed to find a more beautiful or more magical corner of the world than Pembrokeshire, and it doesn’t hurt that it looks a lot like northern California, where I spent my childhood. As Gordon so rightly remarks, when it comes to the colonized corners of Britain, Wales may not have Scotland’s aggressive glamour (so metal), but there’s something undeniably subversive in the way the Welsh just go on quietly Keepin’ It Welsh. (And I submit that what they lack in kilts they make up for in wetsuited surfers, so.) To my ear there’s a sweetness unique to Welsh music, and the language with its many Fs, Ps and Ws and its soft, full vowels and rolling cadences sounds gently magnificent. Appropriately, St. David–whose dying words included the injunction to “be joyful, and do the little things you have seen me do”–is a very chill saint. He has the juice to get stuff done but he doesn’t put on a big show about it, and I respect that.

So it’s the feast of St. David today, 1 March, and this year I have really connected with his dedication to the little things. Currently I’m looking at having to ruthlessly Marie Kondo-ize all my earthly possessions, including family heirlooms, move out of my house within 2 months, and move overseas (destination and job TBD) sometime probably within the next half year, leaving friends and family behind yet again–and I feel very acutely the importance of community, family, friendship, and home.

The profundity and preciousness of the small is evident from within a state of absorption such as I wrote about yesterday. In a divination the other day it was suggested that the the joys to be found in the small will always play a large role in my life and family. That of course remains to be seen, but it is an important reminder that how you do everyday things is usually more important than doing “big” things. And with everyone miserable with the state of the world and its so-called “leaders” these days (Kali Yuga, innit?), some renewed attention to the small, the local, the personal, the immediate, the realizable, the concrete is timely. St. David’s day is an excellent time to reflect on the power of simply caring. And if you want to really mark the day, you could experiment with what happens when you combine mental absorption with an attitude of confident expectancy and calm enthusiasm and apply them to the little things in your life.

And so I leave you with a song about being indestructible and honoring the small things, by the utterly delightful and brilliant Cosmo Sheldrake.

Did you know it has been suggested that 2017 be “the Year of the Tardigrade“? Words to live by, eh?

Time to get started

The Coming of Bride by John Duncan 1917
The Coming of Bride by John Duncan (1917)

If you’ve got any projects you’ve been planning to begin, or changes to make, this is the time to (as Shia LeBeouf would say) DOOOO IT!!!

Specifically, now through Wednesday, 3 February. Here’s why:

  • Today (1 Feb) is the feast day of St. Brigid. Some people regard this as a holy day of the putative goddess Brighid (for whom there is no textual evidence but whatever) and celebrate Imbolc now. Whether you regard her as a saint or goddess, Brigid (meaning “eminence”, “high place”) seems to be a pretty good person to have on your side. According to Giraldus Cambrensis, the nuns at her abbey in Kildare (“Church of the Oak”), known as “daughters of fire,” guarded a sacred flame. Keep that in mind because you will see a pattern…
  • Tomorrow (2 Feb) is Candlemas, the feast of the Purification of Mary, when in Christian mythology, Jesus was first taken out of the home and presented at the temple. Socially this is significant in two ways: first, Mary was cleansed of her birthing impurity (it ain’t fair, but we’re talking about ancient Hebrew society here, so don’t look for a vag-positive worldview) and could return to regular public worship, and Jesus officially became a person and a member of society. The theme is coming forth into the light. And of course, Candlemas refers to the lighting of candles which is a celebration of the return of light.
  • Tomorrow is also Groundhog Day here in the US. For those of you not familiar with this silly ritual, it is sortilege by rodent. If the ceremonial groundhog, christened Punxsutawney Phil, sees his shadow when he comes out of his burrow (i.e., if it is sunny), there will be six more weeks of cold weather.
  • Wednesday, 3 February, is Imbolc proper. Imbolc is the “cross-quarter” day between the winter solstice and spring equinox, and thus the first day of spring according to the solar calendar. (It is usually ceremonially observed on the 1st or 2nd of February, but this year it is, in fact, the 3rd.) Beyond that we don’t really know anything about it historically, so you can get creative. Only-slightly-tangential sidebar: Have you noticed how the solstices are regarded as the middle of their respective seasons–Midsummer, Midwinter–but the equinoxes are treated as the beginning of their seasons? That makes no sense. The solstices and equinoxes evenly divide the year, so if a solstice is in the middle of a season then an equinox is also in the middle. That means that March 21/22 is NOT the beginning of spring but the middle of spring–which certainly corresponds better to what one can observe going on in nature and on the farm at that time. Ergo the cross-quarter days are more properly treated as the beginnings of the seasons. And indeed, according to folklore that is exactly what they were in the British Isles in the old days. So, Imbolc is the beginning of spring, huzzah! You don’t need the calendar to tell you that–there are buds on the trees, the days are getting noticeably longer, it’s very muddy, dog poop has re-emerged where snow is melting, the geese are returning, the sap has started running, and the ewes (they say) are beginning to lactate (March 21 the beginning of spring my ass…arglebargle)…though it’s not exactly getting warmer around here, as it never really got cold to begin with this winter.
  • Also on Wednesday, the space weather will be good: The Sun in Aquarius sextiles Saturn in Sagittarius, putting them in mutual reception, which is nice because they will be getting along well. That makes it a good day for implementing new structures, patterns, routines, and boundaries. (Doubly nice for me, Saturn is finally moving off my personal Neptune. Whew!) Wednesday is the planetary day of Mercury and sacred to Hermes, a god of magic, so arguably a great time for divination or magic. Things start to get astrologically hairy again on Friday, so get while the gettin’s good.
  • Also also on Wednesday is the Japanese festival of Setsubun or Risshun, the day before the official first day of spring (as they currently calculate it; formerly the last day of the old year/winter). It is another purification day. Traditionally, roasted soybeans were thrown out the door, making a tremendous rattle as they hit the wooden porches that surround old-style Japanese houses, and people yell, “Oni wa…soto! Fuku wa…uchi!” (“Demons out! Good luck in!”). People still throw beans, they probably just don’t make quite the same apotropaically-potent racket. (Here is someone after my own heart, a “British Shinto-Pagan”, writing about “Japan’s Imbolc”.)
  • Also there is a rare quintet of planets visible before dawn, the “spear-bearers” heralding the return of the sun (this also from the Coppock link above), making it an extra juicy and powerful sun. These are Mercury (finally out of his retrograde and returning from the underworld), Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. This is the first time all 5 planets have been visible at the same time since 2005.
  • Other things happening this month: February derives from the Latin meaning to purify. It refers to the purification rituals held at Lupercalia during the February full moon (that will be on the 22nd by our calendar). The 8th is the Chinese New Year, which is to say the traditional lunar new year in East Asia, beginning the year of the Fire Monkey (which sounds terrifying to me, but there’s a hint of light again). February 13 is the feast of St. Modomnoc, the patron saint of bees and beekeeping–they could use our help. I will be taking a beekeeping-for-beginners class that day–someone in our local beekeeper’s association has got their finger on the saintly pulse, I see. I guess some people are into the feast of St. Valentine, but that day has been so tarted up and divorced from real love that, following Gordon, I have chosen to celebrate St. Dwynwen instead (her day is 25 January).

Seriously guys, there is so much juju in the air right now, and it’s all ripe for clearing out the old and bringing in the new. It is also a time, as Austin Coppock mentions in his weekly forecast to which I linked above, when the sun seems to take on a very feminine energy. Those of us familiar with the Classical, reconstructed Celtic, and Egyptian pantheons are accustomed to thinking of the sun as a distinctly masculine presence, but it’s by no means universal and I for one really feel the feminine sun this year.

I’m taking this opportunity to resume in earnest the magical studies that dropped off around the time my mom was dying. My autumn and winter were consumed by that event and its fallout, so now I am rejoining the world of the living (at least to the extent that I ever do). Things are getting rolling here at Firefly Farm too, as I expect to be getting a few laying hens as soon as I can convert one of our outbuildings into a coop, starting a compost pile, and ordering seeds. It would help if I had a job to fund the necessary supplies, but hopefully this month will see a new beginning for my income too. Bees will likely have to wait till next year, but you never know.

Let’s get to work!

In pagan Spain, Part III

In Part I, if you missed it, I wrote about the paganness of bullfighting; in Part II I wrote about Andalucía’s Virgin Mother goddesses. In Part III, we talk about Jesus…

Hospital de la Caridad retablo by Pedro Roldan

My ramblings about “pagan” Spain are not just a matter of ethnographic interest. It’s the broader themes they touch on, which have been tapping at my mental window for the latter half of 2015, that are the juicy bits. In particular, death and sacrifice. I haven’t met many non-Latin Westerners who aren’t at least a little uncomfortable with bullfighting, for example; and yet animal sacrifice is something some pagans are quite comfortable with, as are many African and diasporic religions. I believe a big chunk of our bad feels about bullfighting come from the misapprehension of it as merely an entertainment; but regardless, I believe a sober reflection on bullfighting and how it makes us feel can help us dig a little deeper into what sacrifice means, why we do (or don’t) it, what values it enacts, our relationship (as humans, as priest/esses, as devotees, etc. etc.) to the sacrificee, and how best to go about performing a sacrifice. A life unexamined is wasted, but a religion unexamined is dangerous to all concerned.

With Jesus we come back around to sacrifice, since in Christian theology his crucifixion was said to be the ultimate sacrifice, that renders any other unnecessary forever. That sacrifice wrote a blank check to the cosmos. In the Spanish context, though, it seems that it’s a check that needs to be signed again every year through ritual reenactment. That’s hardly unusual in the context of pagan Mediterranean religions, but you don’t see it too much in mainstream Christianity.

There’s been some discussion of animal sacrifice in comments on the Well of Galabes blog (the comments about sacrifice are somewhat peripheral to the subject of the blog post). If I remember correctly, one person said they would have no part of blood sacrifice and any deity who would demand it is, if not actually evil, then certainly not the sort one wants to associate with. Someone else said, if you have a problem sacrificing chickens I sure hope you’re not eating meat because hello, hypocrisy? And yet another person said something like, slaughtering animals was a normal part of life until very recently, and dedicating to a deity a death that was going to happen regardless just makes sense. It’s like inviting the deity over for dinner.

This latter approach makes a lot of sense to me. I have to be honest–if and when I ever find myself keeping livestock, I am not going to be the one slaughtering it. It’s not a moral virtue on my part–quite the contrary, in fact–it’s just a personal limitation, even a weakness if you will. I think our society’s squeamishness around death is both silly and damaging to the dying and the grieving–which, let’s face it, is all of us at various times–but even so, I don’t think animal slaughter was ever meant to be ho-hum. When you bring about someone else’s death, that should matter to you. You should take it seriously and reflect on your own mortality and that of the deceased. It should be uncomfortable enough that you can’t ever undertake it lightly or in excess. A little ritual hedging around the event can only help.

On the other hand, I believe it was the anthropologist Michael Taussig who said that sacrifice is not about an exchange (“Hey, thanks for all that rain you’ve been sending our way; here, have a virgin,” or, “If you give me a million dollars, I’ll give you a chicken”) but is instead a way of entering a non-normal state of being that enables communion with the deity/ies. (It’s been many years since I read that, so I might be garbling it a bit.) I wonder (because I don’t remember) whether Taussig was viewing sacrifice as an essentially taboo activity that, in left-hand path fashion, acts to liberate the participants from stultifying social norms.

Greer writes, in the Galabes post linked above:

“When Christianity first emerged, after all, it did so in a world where the practice of animal sacrifice was a normal part of religious worship; everybody knew from personal experience what was involved in killing an animal in honor of a god and feasting on its flesh. In that context, reenacting the sacrificial death of Christ and ritually eating his flesh and drinking his blood must have packed emotional force of an intensity and concreteness that can barely be imagined today. Even now, though, the Mass is edgy stuff; the symbolic cannibalism at its heart reaches straight down into primal desires and fears about eating and being eaten—and that’s an important part of what gives it its power.”

Gordon proposes that in sacrifice,

“…the non-physical recipients are fed not by the things they accrue, but by the things we deny ourselves….To me, this implies that the awareness of lack in our consciousness is the actual ‘sacrifice’, the actual ‘currency’, that is exchanged between the physical and the non-physical.”

That works for explaining how our offerings are received, but not so much in the case of an animal that is ritually slaughtered but then eaten by the humans involved, because arguably, the people might not otherwise have been about to eat that chicken, but they would probably have been eating a chicken. I don’t find the lack argument totally persuasive; it may well be true some of the time, but it can’t explain all the forms of sacrifice. My own experience isn’t sufficient to have formed a strong opinion on this though.

Yet thinking about the “awareness of lack” brings me back to the grieving that is so central to Andalucían religion. (Incidentally, grief also forms the main subject matter of flamenco songs, which is part of why people look so tortured when dancing to the “deep song.”*) Grief is the ultimate awareness of lack. If, as Gordon says, our non-physical neighbors are fascinated by lack, something they don’t experience, then the entities honored as various Virgins and Christs must be loving 20th/21st-century Spain.

I keep coming back to the question, how–and why?–does one celebrate grief? That’s what I see happening in Sevilla’s Holy Week rituals (and indeed Spanish comedy as well). But it proves that it can be done. Perhaps even that it should be done, sometimes.

Death more generally runs through (what I consider to be) Andalucía’s pagan traditions like an underground river. You may not see it clearly, but you can always hear it burbling away beneath. For people who know how to enjoy life so well (¡fiesta y siesta!), Spaniards have always struck me as quite morbid. Actually, I’m sure that’s no accident. If they are unusually preoccupied with their own mortality, they arguably have reason to be: just in the 20th-21st centuries they endured a tremendous amount of wealth inequality with grinding poverty for most, a vicious civil war, an oppressive dictatorship (which many perversely love in retrospect), regime change, drought and famine, and a collapsed economy. I noticed when I lived there how, in addition to preferring their Virgins to be depicted in a state of eternal mourning, they like their Christs battered and bloody. In Spain they want a Jesus who really knows what it means to suffer.

El Cachorro (Cristo de la Expiracion)
El Cachorro (Cristo de la Expiracion)

There’s a famous story about the artist who sculpted one of Sevilla’s images of Jesus, popularly known as El Cachorro (The Puppy). The artist, Francisco Ruiz Gijón, couldn’t get the look of agony on the face right, until one evening when he stumbled upon a Gypsy man–whose nickname was The Puppy–dying of a knife wound in an alley. Now that was how Jesus should look! (I imagine Ruiz Gijón whipping out his sketchbook on the spot, to The Puppy’s brief but no less massive consternation.)

In Sevilla, the wee hours between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, when Jesus ostensibly died, are far more socially important than Easter Sunday is. Which is kind of funny when you think about it: The central mystery of Christianity is not supposed to be Christ’s death but his resurrection. Osiris was also defined by his resurrection, and though he was often depicted as a mummy, it seems to me (not an Egyptologist here) that he’s mostly depicted alive. Even when he’s dead, Isis is usually in the midst of reviving him or he has ripe grain growing from his body. So what’s with all the gory Jesus iconography?

Well, you can’t resurrect unless you first die. Part of Jesus’ mythology is that he is human (among other things), so by definition his body has to be able to die. Evidently this is something Spanish people (Andaluzes anyway) can really connect with. Likewise, maybe they identify better with a Virgin Mary who grieves because they too know grief and find the deepest wells of empathy within it.

Yes, when it comes to Spanish Jesus, the deader the better. One might even say it’s a case of overkill. One might say the same about bullfighting, even if one regards that as a ritual sacrifice. In turn I wonder, are we to learn from this that a more torturous sacrifice has more juju? Must the sacrificee be put to the test in order to prove himself** worthy of the best possible completion of his life? Are these things relevant to the non-physical honorees of the sacrifice at all, or do they only matter within human categories?

As I mentioned in my last post, there is something very Attis-like about Andalucían Jesus. I’m not saying that he “is” Attis in the sense of direct continuity with that specific deity in pre-Christian contexts, but modern Spanish Jesus certainly seems to play a similar role. The annual reenactment of Jesus’ sacrificial death in springtime, with his body subsequently transforming into bread/food/grain, and the repeated bull sacrifices from spring through autumn, smack of agrarian fertility concerns. I also want to emphasize that I do not see parallels exclusively with Attis; there are obvious parallels that can be drawn between Spanish Jesus and Osiris, Horus, and Mithra, for example. None of this is about one-to-one correlations but about specific iterations of enduring themes and mythic truths, and to a lesser extent playing around with how we understand the category “pagan.”

Make of it what you will.

*There are folkloric forms of flamenco grouped under the rubric of “little song,” in contrast to the more classical deep song. They tend to be danced in a more upbeat style, but even there, the songs are almost always about grief.

**Jesus and bulls all being male, I use the masculine pronoun deliberately here. It does beg the question of what the female role(s) in this passion play might be–grieving only, or something more?

In pagan Spain, Part II

In Part I I considered the pagan aspects of bullfighting. Now we move on the Virgin Mother goddesses…

There is a folkloric tradition binding bullfighters and the Virgin Mary, the different representations of whom, as I have argued before, are for all intents and purposes distinct goddesses, or at least distinct avatars of a generalized Mediterranean mother goddess. Up through the 1970s, the only form of social mobility for young men in Andalucía was to become a bullfighter, but it wasn’t easy to find a trainer or a patron. So the bravest or most desperate would-be bullfighters would sneak into the bull breeders’ fields at night to get some practice passing bulls with a cape. This was incredibly dangerous because Spanish bulls are very large and extremely aggressive, plus it was dark, and if the breeder’s ranch manager caught you, they would likely shoot you on the spot. Lots of guys were gored to bleed to death alone in the night somewhere. Not surprisingly, in such situations, you want to have a little supernatural protection. And so, at least according to legend, bullfighters tend to be especially fervent in their devotions to their Virgin.

And the feeling, we are told, is mutual. There’s at least one famous song about one of the Virgins mourning the death of her devotee, a young would-be bullfighter in the fields. The most common representation of the Virgin Mary in Spain, particularly in Andalucía, is la dolorosa (the sorrowful). This is Mary distraught over the death of her son Jesus, with tears on her face and frequently a heart pierced by daggers. This is the Virgin that people pray to for help. Yes, there are representations of Isis Mary holding Baby Horus Jesus, but these are usually located in small side chapels; the largest and most central representation of the Virgin is almost always a dolorosa. So, mourning is a defining feature of these goddesses’ mythology and of the relationship between them and their people.

I think what we are seeing in these separate goddesses who yet seem to be the same, is the meeting of locally-specific land- and community-based powers with more universal deity powers. I don’t fully understand how this works, but I think it’s a lot more representative of how old time paganism functioned than the highly abstract universal deities that seem to be popular with modern pagans. For whatever reason, grief seems to have become the nexus that enables people to connect to these deities, and has come to sort of encapsulate their nature.

But there’s mourning, and there’s mourning. This is how one of the most famous and popular Virgins is dressed as she mourns perpetually for her dead son Jesus:

Macarena en paso

She is standing here on the paso or float that will carry her around town on the night of Maundy Thursday/Good Friday. You know, the day Jesus was crucified. She looks pretty magnificent in spite of a few tears; there is about a ton of gold and silver here, and those five flowers on her bosom are made from enormous emeralds and diamonds.

But this is how she looked in 1920, when her most famous bullfighter devotee was gored to death by a bull:

Macarena de luto

Gone are the emeralds and diamonds (a gift from that bullfighter) and the golden mantle, replaced by widow’s weeds.

Wait, widow? Yeah, I said it. I realize that what I’m saying is…uh, non-canonical…to Catholics and other Christians and once again I have to reiterate, this is not something local people in Spain would ever say. This is my interpretation of what is really going on under the surface. Just as numerous scholars, pagans, and magicians have spotted the obvious parallels between representations of Mary and Baby Jesus and Isis and Baby Horus, I think the Virgin in southern Spain (Sevilla in particular) has picked up the dropped thread of an ancient goddess. The way the Virgin mourns for Jesus and her bullfighters looks a lot less like a mother grieving her son than it does like a woman grieving her lover (your mileage may vary, but that’s my take). Not that those two things are mutually exclusive–indeed, I think the Virgin’s mourning is multivalent, by which I mean that people connect with it through their own experiences of grief, whether those involve a lost parent, child, spouse, lover, or what have you. But the mother grieving for her son/lover was a major religious and mythic current in the pre-Christian Mediterranean, in the form of Cybele.

In light of this, I think it is interesting to look at a well-known story about two of Sevilla’s patron saints, Justa and Rufina. According to the story, they were sisters, from a family of potters, who lived during the 3rd century AD. At that time, Spain was the Roman province Hispania and Hispalis (Sevilla) was an important river port and center of trade. In the version I heard, celebrants carrying an image of Cybele/Magna Mater on a kind of litter or float, passed by Justa and Rufina’s family’s shop and demanded a sacrifice of pottery. Naturally, the Christian sisters refused. (The rest of the story is your standard martyr story–they were hauled in by the Roman authorities, tortured, and killed.)

Carrying religious effigies around on litters isn’t exactly unique to Spain–they did it in ancient Egypt, they do it in modern Japan–it’s something people just do. Other kinds of Christians do it in other parts of the world. But I guarantee nobody gets into it the way people do in Sevilla during Holy Week. Hours and hours of pounding drums, funeral dirges, incense wafting, candlelight, bloody penitents, strange robes and headdresses, people spontaneously bursting into ecstatic praise songs, throwing flowers–I mean, if that’s not a pagan ritual then I don’t know what is. And if it doesn’t alter your state of consciousness, nothing will. (Jesus is a part of this too, but I’ll get to him in the next post.)

So ok, it’s pagan, but why do I associate these goddesses with Cybele? Well, it might not be Cybele per se. Many cultures have called southern Spain home, or established colonies there, from the Phoenicians, to the Greeks, Romans, Celtic-speaking peoples, Visigoths, and Muslims from Africa, Arabia, and Persia. It was deliberately religiously pluralistic until the Reconquest and the exile of Jews and Muslims in 1492 (a banner year, that one). In Sevilla, you can still feel the undertow of different cultural currents. For example, the Virgin pictured above is Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza Macarena (Our Lady of Hope Macarena). Though I’ve heard different proposed etymologies for the name Macarena, the only one I’ve found remotely persuasive is that it derives from al-Makrin, the Arabic name of a gate in the Roman wall near this Virgin’s church, subsequently applied to the surrounding neighborhood. In Sevilla, it makes perfect sense that a nominally Christian Virgin, probably carved in the late 1600s, would take her name from the Arabic name for a Roman neighborhood. And as Gordon points out, such deeply layered cultural palimpsests are where magic is made.

Magna Mater

My point is that there undoubtedly a lot of goddesses worshiped in that city through time, including numerous mother goddesses, and maybe even many grieving mother goddesses. It could be, for example, that in this region people more readily connected with the part of the Isian-Osirian myth where Isis mourns for the dead Osiris. Perhaps most likely it’s a syncretism involving aspects of all these goddesses. Those that are specific to Cybele and shared by the modern Virgins are (1) They are urban. Cybele was not exclusively urban, being associated with nature and wild animals, but she did have an explicitly urban connection at least in Greece. (2) A central element of their myth is mourning for a dead lover who dies and is resurrected and who, at least in some versions, is also the goddess’ son. In Cybele’s case, this lover is Attis, and he was also her priest. It is noteworthy that the goddess’ consort is never her equal. In Sevilla’s version of Catholicism, Jesus doesn’t receive anywhere near as much popular devotion as the Virgin. She is treated as a goddess, he is treated as something less than a god. (3) Springtime festivals. In Roman times, Magna Mater/Cybele had two festivals, Hilaria, a week-long celebration around the spring equinox; and Megalesia, also about a week, which began on April 4. And (4) from the 2nd-4th centuries AD, taurobolia–bull sacrifices–were offered to Magna Mater née Cybele. (I also have to say that I’m not the only person who has made the connection between the Virgins and pre-Christian mother goddesses, I’m just making it my way.)

“In the late republican era, Lucretius vividly describes the procession’s armed ‘war dancers’ in their three-plumed helmets, clashing their shields together, bronze on bronze, ‘delighted by blood’; yellow-robed, long-haired, perfumed Galli [priests] waving their knives, wild music of thrumming tympanons and shrill flutes. Along the route, rose petals are scattered, and clouds of incense arise. The goddess’s image, wearing the Mural Crown and seated within a sculpted, lion-drawn chariot, is carried high on a bier.” (quoth Wikipedia)

In Sevilla, Holy Week is the major religious festival and while its dates change every year, they are of course always in March or April. Holy Week is holy through its association with the death of Jesus and his resurrection on Easter Sunday. Easter begins the season of (what I interpret to be) ritual bull sacrifices. Two weeks after Easter comes the April Fair, another week-long festival, but this one dedicated to drinking, dancing, rich people showing off their horses, lots of bullfights, and general Bacchanalian revelry. Collectively, Holy Week and the April Fair are known as Fiestas de Primavera (spring festivals).

So while I don’t 100% commit to the idea that the Virgins are avatars of Cybele specifically, Cybele/Magna Mater’s cult does seem to at least be one strand in the skein–which is, appropriately, the symbol of Sevilla on the city flag. Given the Mother’s “Virgin’s” special patronage of bullfighters, might we consider the possibility that the bullfighter enacts the role of her priest and consort, and that the recipient of these sacrifices is in fact the Great Mother, who occasionally also requires the sacrifice of her priest? Again, I’m not making the argument that this is some secret 5,000-year-old religion that has persisted since the Bronze Age. Rather, I’m saying that the most resonant threads from religions both ancient and modern are continuously teased out and re-woven. But at the same time, because the local deities were never completely allowed to “die” or be forgotten, they continue to communicate with people and to teach their mythology. We can’t overlook their role in writing the story.

Have yourself a happy Halloween folks!

In pagan Spain, Part I

I was thinking about autumn today as I was walking my dog and enjoying the cooler temperatures (“cooler,” of course, is relative in Southern California). Fall has always been my favorite season here in the US, but in Spain my favorite season is spring.

Spanish spring is a heady mix of contagious eroticism, religious fervor, and electric physical vitality. Now, spring was also a big deal when I lived in Minnesota, but there it was more a matter of relief, tempered with disgust at the vast quantities of mud and months-old dog poop newly revealed from beneath the thawing snow. I should specify that when I say “Spain” here I am really referring to the southernmost region of Andalucía, and in particular Sevilla, where I lived in from ages 15 to 18. It’s a pretty warm part of the world, no snow except in the mountains, so the verve of spring in Sevilla is not that winter-is-finally-over feeling you get in Minnesota. It’s…different. A young St. Theresa of Avila, begging her superiors for a transfer to a convent in some other time, reputedly explained, “To live in Sevilla in the springtime and not sin it is necessary to be a saint.” Well, she should know.

I’m not just thinking about this because of the change of seasons, or rather, that’s exactly what it is, but more on a metaphorical and metaphyiscal level than the literal one. My life in Spain was an experience intimately tied to my relationship with my mom. My mom had been traveling to Spain to visit friends she’d met in 1971, when she went there to do a pilot study for anthropological research. The research ended up never happening for various reasons, but the friendships turned out to be lifelong. When we moved there, it was because one of her acquaintances offered her a teaching job at a college he ran. Part of my mom’s salary would be free tuition for me, and I was bored as hell in high school, so we took the leap. As far as we knew at the time, it might be a permanent relocation; though, as it turned out, it was only three years. For me they were very formative years as you can imagine if you have ever been 15-18 years old.

Being just five weeks past my 15th birthday when we moved, I was full of teenage pissiness. I’d been hearing my mom’s Spain stories my whole life, and they were interesting, but for reasons I still don’t understand and can only put down to hormones and being a weirdo, I hated that we were on such unequal footing there. She’d been going to Spain for more than 20 years, she had friends and acquaintances and a boyfriend there, whereas I was leaving behind all the places and people I was familiar with.

That said, it took me all of about 24 hours to decide that it was going to be an excellent adventure.

Anyway, long story short, I observed some things that I thought might be of interest. These are not things I’ve seen talked about much in the magical community–and that could just be my ignorance, but if that’s a real thing then my observations might prove (as the anthropologists say) “good to think with.”

I’m not the first person to observe that Andalucían Christianity looks like a very thinly veiled paganism. While I think that’s the case, I don’t put full stock in arguments that what one sees there is some unbroken line of continuity from the Bronze Age. It strikes me as more like a tapestry where individual threads break, but the loose ends are picked up again; the pattern gets a little messed up, its original designer long forgotten, but is never completely lost.

In trying to organize my thoughts, the themes that seem to me to most clearly embody the paganism of southern Spain are bullfighting, sacrificed Jesus, and Virgins. I have already written a bit about the Virgins, but I want to be more speculative here. These themes are all intertwined and I hope I can do justice to their interrelationship, but once I got started writing this post got super long, so I decided to break it up.

bullfight

The first thing to understand about bullfighting is that it’s not a sport. I don’t know why that idea seems to be so hard for people from non-bullfighting cultures to grasp. I get that most Westerners are really uncomfortable with the subject, as am I, but does that mean we can’t at least understand it accurately and on its own terms? I used to have a little test I would submit travel guides to, but checking their bullfight section. The number of inaccuracies seemed to be a good index of how poorly researched the book would be overall. I never did find a single accurate description of what goes on in a bullfight, which tells me something about how invested we are in not understanding it. The same is true of most descriptions coming from animal rights organizations. Do we really think that understanding something means condoning or enjoying it? Bullfighting is bloody enough as is to excite the sympathies of any animal lover, there is no need to exaggerate or misrepresent the case.

Anyway, a sport is a contest between two more-or-less evenly matched opponents, where either can win. From a Spanish perspective, bullfighting is a highly ritualized art form. If you want to find out what went down at Sunday’s fight, you look it up in the Arts and Culture section of the paper. First of all, while most bullfighters (I used to live in a house full of them) would agree that the man and the bull are more-or-less evenly matched, nobody “wins” a bullfight. An especially brave bull may be given an “indulgence” and allowed to live but that is rare indeed. In that case the bullfighter still has to go through the motions of stabbing the bull through the heart, but using his bare hand, which is even more dangerous. Probably 99% of the time, the bull dies, because that is the point of the whole endeavor.

Bulls are the only animals believed to have courage and nobility like a human man. Although these characteristics are considered quintessentially male, bulls are believed to inherit them from their mothers. Just as the most honorable way for a man to die would be in righteous battle, that is also the only honorable way for a bull to die–in ritual combat with the only being who can truly understand and relate to the bull. Man and bull are equal polarized forces, light and dark, civilized and wild, life and death.

Bullfights are riddled with the number three. There are three bullfighters (each fighting two bulls), and each fight is divided in three parts. Each of those three parts is in turn divided in three, for a total of 9. I don’t have to tell you people how magical those numbers are. I’ve heard various explanations for the purpose of the three parts; for example, some argue that the point of having a guy on horseback stab the fatty deposit on the bull’s shoulders with a short-bladed lance (the first third of the fight) is to weaken the bull, but bullfighters tell me it’s to test the bull’s nobility. (“Nobility” here means that the bull keeps charging in spite of his pain and without thought to his own safety.) If the bullfighter is particularly skilled and brave, he may be awarded three trophies, the bull’s ears and tail.

There is a bullfight “season” in Spain which begins on Easter Sunday. Coincidence? Yeah, right.

It seems patently obvious that a bullfight is a ritual animal sacrifice. In fact, it used to involve a lot more sacrifice: Today the horses ridden by the guys with lances are heavy, placid draft breeds, blindfolded on the side that faces the bull to spare them anxiety, and swathed in impenetrable body armor. But 50 years ago they were just light carriage horses with no armor, and they were routinely disemboweled by the charging bull. Three jabs with the lance per bull times six bulls per afternoon meant up to 18 horses being killed along with the six bulls. I saw some old footage once on TV, and if you think bullfighting now is brutal, you just cannot imagine the carnage back then. But I digress. Just as when a chicken is sacrificed to a lwa or a lamb is offered to a Greek deity, after the fight the bull is butchered and eaten. However, there’s a disconnect in that the meat isn’t eaten by celebrants at the rite, but by whoever happens to buy it from the butcher. And most people don’t prefer bull meat because it’s tough. But then, the meat is not the point. A further disconnect is that, if this is indeed a sacrifice, the recipient is unspecified. In modern times, I think the bullfight has functioned as a sort of sacrifice to the people, sort of like a scapegoating where the death of the bull relieves the people of their burden of sin. But that’s just my interpretation and is certainly not explicitly articulated.

Some believe that bullfights descend all the way from Bronze Age Minoan tradition, referencing the paintings of “bull-leapers” from Crete. Others say that bullfighting simply evolved from a military-training-cum-bloodsport of Moorish times, where warriors on horseback would hone their skills against bulls. If bullfighting really is the remnant of an ancient religious ritual, what does it mean for that ritual to lose its context, or perhaps more accurately, for the religious context to change?

I think bullfighting fits within a widespread pre-Christian Mediterranean custom of bull reverence and feats of death-defying derring-do revolving around bulls, but I’m not sure that requires 5,000 years of unbroken tradition. But this brings me to my next topic, which is for next time.

Season of the dead

In Ictu Oculi by Juan de Valdes Leal (1671)
In Ictu Oculi by Juan de Valdes Leal (1671)

I see that death is still in the air. I use Feedly to aggregate the blogs I follow, and today it greeted me with this post by Deb about visiting the beloved dead; this one about Undertaking LA, the “progressive funeral parlor” which happens to be handling my mother’s mortal remains at this very moment; the first in a promised series of posts on the Shinto way of death; this one which isn’t actually about death per se, but made me think of death because the Welsh god Gwyn ap Nudd is a psychopomp and underworld power associated with the Wild Hunt; and this one which also isn’t about death but references death, the descent into the underworld, and resurrection in the Maya cosmological context.

I’m sensing a theme here.

Not that that is entirely unexpected. There’s just something about the end of October…is it only a northern hemisphere thing? There’s Samhain/Halloween, the Chrysanthemum Festival (lunar date), Día de los Muertos, and not coincidentally the sign of Scorpio. Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, but it seems like it ain’t what it used to be. Am I merely becoming crotchety in my middle age? People don’t seem to put the thought and care into it that they used to. This year I keep seeing things about “trunk-or-treating,” which I guess is more of this helicopter parent stuff where children aren’t allowed to go out at night and roam the neighborhood, even in the safety of their packs. For comparison, when my mom was a kid, they took the trick part of trick-or-treat seriously, stealing yard furniture and garbage cans, TPing people’s houses, throwing handfuls of dry corn kernels at their doors to make a racket, and so on. I think we should bring back Mischief Night. And when I was a kid, we rode around unrestrained in the back of a pickup truck, and later, having moved to the city, we went out with one adult who maintained a respectful distance. Sorry, but “trunk-or-treat” is a fucking travesty. Do not do this to your children. “Controlled and safe” is the antithesis of Halloween, and it might just be What’s Wrong With the World Today.

Anyway, up until my late 20s I guess, Halloween never disappointed. It was exciting because you just never knew what would happen, what with the disguises and being out late, the sugar rush and alcohol buzz, chill weather, and that whiff of liminality and leaf litter in the air. I remember when it changed–well, I don’t remember the calendar year, but I remember how it went down. My friend Heather made a bid to host the annual grad student Halloween party. She went all out with the decorations, I mean she even turned the crawlspace in her basement into a barrow full of treasure and ghosts. It was beautiful, spooky, and really captured the proper insouciant mood. But she unwittingly pissed off the woman who had hosted the previous couple years, who gave her the cold shoulder, some people didn’t even show up, and everything got really awkward. Heather was bummed. From then on, the previous hostess got her hostessing hegemony back, but the Halloween party became just another standing-around-drinking-and-listening-to-’90s music thing. It never again lived up to the sense of anticipation.

Maybe it was just something that happened within my circle of acquaintances (I hope so). Or maybe it was a reflection of a wider trend. My sense is that there is a magical current at this time of year into which one can tap, but it requires more than just fancy dress, a little sexual license, and booze. For me it seems to be some combination of beauty, a sense of mortality, and a willingness to think mythically and aim to misbehave. Suspension of disbelief is critical. I’ve long wanted to host a dumb supper but haven’t been able to assemble a right-minded list of guests. One day, though…

That actually was kind of a digression. My mom died last Sunday, on the New Moon which I think was rather stylish timing on her part. It was peaceful, and so far as I could tell, painless. The most unexpected aspect of grief, I am finding, is catastrophic brain fog. My dad says bereavement takes a lot of processing and one can’t expect to be operating at full mental capacity for quite a while. Taking care of myself, especially cooking, is surprisingly difficult. It just requires too much advance planning and too much attention span. If this post seems unusually rambly or flaky, that would be why.

So now I am packing and sorting and donating and throwing away in preparation to move (on which more later in another post, when I can think better). Sorting through a loved one’s belongings is a strange feeling. There are artifacts that mean nothing to you, that you have never seen and may not even be able to identify, yet which were lovingly curated for decades. It doesn’t seem right to throw them away, but needs must. For the first time I’m starting to see my mom as a person independent of me, the child. I mean, intellectually I knew that, but I never understood it till now. In some sense, I don’t think I’ve ever been closer to my mom, but she’s never been more of a mystery to me.

Weirdest of all is that I found a skeleton in the closet.

Oh, you think that’s a metaphor? Nope, I found a literal skeleton in a box in the closet. When I opened the box all I could see was crumpled newspaper; I picked up a piece and teeth fell out. I looked down to see a clump of ancient hair and vertebrae in my hand. This is the kind of thing that happens when you have archaeologists for parents, but I must say I was astounded that my mom didn’t tell me about it. I mean, that’s a hell of a thing to spring on a person. But it certainly is fitting for the season.

Chrysanthemum Festival

chrysanthemum-202483_1920

For the past couple days, this date–9 September–has been nagging at me. I knew it was supposed to be significant, but couldn’t remember why. Maybe it’s just because I know that in East Asian cultures, when the day and month are the same number, and especially when that number is odd, it’s a festival day. The 5th day of the 5th month is Boys’ Day/Dragon Boat Festival, the 7th day of the 7th Month is the Star Festival, and so on. But although I’ve visited Japan and Korea quite a bit, it has always been in summer, so I haven’t had the opportunity to experience most of the seasonal festivals, including this one; I have a sort of vague sense that they exist is all. But I had a strong urge to find out what 9/9 might be about.

Turns out today is the celebration of the Chrysanthemum Festival in Japan. The festival properly belongs to the 9th day of the 9th lunar month, but whereas in China lunar dates are still observed, in Japan they have been shifted to the Gregorian solar calendar. In China it is more commonly known as the Double Ninth Festival or Double Yang Festival. Odd numbers are associated with yang (and even numbers with yin), and as 9 is the highest single-digit yang number, yang energy is thought to be at a peak on this day. This year, the lunar date of the festival is 21 October–which is proper autumn, unlike today in Southern California where it is 103 degrees and most definitely still summer.

For wealthy Chinese, the festival seems to have grown increasingly aesthetically elaborate, with displays of assorted chrysanthemum cultivars, mountain- or hill-top picnics, drinking of crysanthemum wine with toasts to the celebrants’ longevity, and composing and reciting poems.

chrysanthemum-805718_1280

However, I suspect the festival came to my attention, whether it was some long-buried subconscious memory surfacing or something more synchronicitous, because of its ancestor- and mortality-themed aspects. I don’t know if I’m becoming especially ancestor-oriented lately, or if my ancestors are clamoring for attention. I think, due to life circumstances which I will touch on in my next couple of posts, it’s a little of both. It is interesting that the chrysanthemum is associated with death in both Western and Eastern cultures; perhaps because, “Blooming late in autumn, the chrysanthemum signals the coming of winter, and death…” (Casal 1967: 102). I suppose it’s equally possible that Europeans simply imported the Asian symbolic associations of mums along with the flowers themselves.

Casal (op. cit.) speculates that in its original form, prior to being co-opted for rich people’s poetry parties, the chrysanthemum festival was a solar ritual focused on the mutual preservation of the sun’s and people’s vitality through the winter. I’m not sure I buy the solar hypothesis per se, but I do think that the complex symbolism of the chrysanthemum–mourning and melancholy, good health and longevity (it’s an important herbal medicine in Asia), protection and purification–make the most sense in the context of the contemplation of and encounter with our own mortality. And although I couldn’t find a single decently-cited internet source* (not even on Google Scholar) with much information on the Chrysanthemum or Double Ninth Festivals, I did find repeated references to it being a day to honor ancestors and the elderly. Note that there are other festivals and ceremonies in honor of the dead at other times of year, which might be why this aspect of the Chrysanthemum Festival has been downplayed over the years.

*This is why I didn’t bother putting in many links. If you’re interested, google Double Ninth and Chrysanthemum Festival and you will easily find the few crummy sources available. They mostly just repeat each other.