Litha – Element of Fire

I’m continuing to republish a series of articles on the Wheel of the Year. This was originally written in 2012.

On Wednesday near 1pm as I darted from one air-conditioned venue to another, I took just a moment to acknowledge the sun standing at its zenith, dead south, pouring out heat of such intensity that even being outside for a few minutes was difficult. In the evening, I stood on the roof of my building and watched the sun set, appreciating the temperatures that were still hot but seemed tremendously cooler by comparison. The Element of Fire had made its presence known on the summer solstice.

This is the next solar festival, or quarter day, in the Wiccan calendar, and in keeping with my theme for this time around the Wheel of the Year, I want to explore the Element of Fire, its connections with the summer solstice, or Litha, as it is called in Wicca, and the symbolic representations of fire used in Wiccan ritual and in Tarot. [1]

On the whole, the correspondence between summer and Fire is a fairly straightforward metaphorical connection: summer is usually when we experience the hottest part of the year, and one of fire’s most obvious characteristics is its intense heat production.[2] Fire also provides light, and this is the climax of the “light” part of the year. The solstice is the peak of the Sun’s energy, the longest days and shortest nights. Concentrating on Fire at this point on the Wheel can help us understand all the changes that have taken place since the year started and begin to prepare ourselves for reaping the results as we move into the waning light and the main harvest season of the year.

These qualities of change and transformation, where Fire represents both destruction and potential renewal, are why the tool I use to represent the Element of Fire is a knife. This is not the attribution that most Wiccans use, although it is not uncommon, either. To understand why most Wiccans associate blades with Air, we have to look at Tarot.

I mentioned back in the Ostara piece on the Element of Air that most Tarot decks based on the Rider-Waite-Smith prototype associate the suit of Swords with the Element of Air, and the suit of Wands with the Element of Fire, but there is evidence that this was a “blind,” or deliberate inaccuracy, inserted in the Tarot decks intended for public consumption by the creators in order to honor those creators’ vows of secrecy to the Golden Dawn. Whether or not it was a blind, the original RWS deck became influential in English-speaking countries, so most Tarot decks continue to use those associations, although a minority use the reversed Swords – Fire and Wands – Air associations.

I don’t follow the Golden Dawn, so for me this is mostly a matter of why most Tarot symbolism differs from what I use in my own rituals. I see wands, or their larger versions, staves or rods, as a way of directing intention that has a lot to do with intellectual choice and reason. The wand’s larger cousin, a staff or rod, can be used to symbolize authority based on knowledge and experience, both parts of the intellectual domain of Air. Personally, my favorite version of a wand is a pen, and since Air is associated with language, that supports my association of wands with Air. I enjoy using fountain pens, whose very design reminds me that historically quill pens were made from feathers, certainly a symbol of Air, and this cements the association.

On the other hand, to me any blade used in ritual – whether a sword or a knife – symbolizes and embodies separating, changing, and transforming in ways that are the essence of Fire. Along the same lines, it is impossible to make metal blades without fire. Not just warmth or heat but the real blazing inferno of a forge is required to render rocks into sharp steel. The product itself is the most dangerous of the Witch’s tools: hurting oneself with a pen is generally unlikely, but simple carelessness with a small blade can easily cause serious injury.[3] Similarly, fire is inherently dangerous: when in balance or being managed, it is useful and even life-giving, but without serious supervision, it will wreak a frighteningly self-perpetuating kind of destruction. Windstorms, floods, and landslides are all dangerous, but they typically represent an unusual behavior of the Element and will exhaust themselves eventually: the landslide has only so much material to move, as the water floods higher areas it loses energy, and whirlwinds are slowed by the obstacles they encounter. On the other hand, the more fire consumes, the more energy it has and the more it spreads itself, growing rather than diminishing.

But when it exhausts itself, the transient heat and light disappear along with the flames. In this way it’s also the most ephemeral of the Elements, another example of its tendency to go to extremes. All of this can make Fire both an attractive Element and one that is hard to relate to. While we depend on it as a tool, we don’t want to experience it ourselves. The kind of transformation that Fire as an Element represents is often frightening and something we do not want to undergo: dramatic transformations are not easy, even when they are less drastic or sudden than that of fuel consumed in a conflagration.

But Fire reminds us that we have to accept these situations as part of life. In every season, life exists in a constant state of rebirth. While some transformations are harder or more sudden than others, nothing is perfectly static. Connecting with and celebrating Fire can help us understand that. In particular, at this turning point of the year it can help us prepare for the transition to autumn and harvest and exemplify the tools to cope with that season and its transformations.

Summer is what connects the seed of life created through interaction to the coming harvest, and the heat and light of summer help bring that to fruition. When those developments are ready, we have to move into reaping, in the way that harvesting transforms what was a growing plant into the very bread of life. This process requires the Element of Fire at each and every step, in both the blade that cuts the stalks and the warmth that helps a loaf rise. The scythe’s blade and the hearthfire are interconnected manifestations of the Element of Fire, and the duality of their symbolisms is a good representation of the Element which goes to extremes but also unifies them.

In this season, as we see the sun at its pinnacle, we experience transformation whether we want it or not. Perhaps the Element of Fire can help us learn to value the transient and the living, to cope with the changes inherent in life, and to gather the results of our earlier work as we go forward. How are you in transition – either slow or speedy – at this solstice?

[1] The solar holidays are the equinoxes and solstices, called the quarter days. The previous one was Ostara. These alternate with the cross-quarter days which are derived from Celtic fire festivals; the last Sabbat was the cross-quarter day of Beltane. In the Southern Hemisphere, it is currently the time of the winter solstice, Yule, which corresponds with the Element of Earth. I’ll contrast these pairings and discuss how they interact in an upcoming piece.↩

[2] [I]t’s also worth pointing out the American tradition of having cook-outs centering on food cooked over (large, often charcoal) open flames. There’s also a broader tradition of serving cool or cold foods as a counter to the season’s climate. The juxtaposition of these points to another feature of the Element of Fire: the tendency to go to extremes, including opposing extremes simultaneously.↩

[3] These are not the only traditional Witch’s tools; more will be discussed with the other Elements, and exactly what is “traditional” depends on which tradition one ascribes to as well.↩

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Just published: The Queen of the Sky, Bast Anthology

Bibliotheca Alexandrina has just published The Queen of the Sky Who Rules Over All the Gods, an anthology in honor of Bast. One of my rituals is included. You can order it at CreateSpace. Enjoy!

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Practicing through depression

I’m going through an episode of major depression. This is not unexpected given how much has been going on for me lately. It seems odd to me that it’s happening when things are finally settling down, but maybe that’s to be expected too. I’m seeking care in a lot of different ways. One of those is talking about it. Another is continuing my daily practice. But my daily practice can be extremely difficult for me right now, and I was wondering if others have gone through something similar.

The problem is that while it’s very difficult to do my daily practice(s) right now, this is the time when I need it most. This is the time when I know it’s good for me, and yet I can barely care enough to sit down and do even the simplest work.

Depression is very sneaky and difficult to deal with because it is so self-reinforcing. Take social contact: it’s generally good to be with friends and loved ones, but depression not only makes me want to be alone, my depression tells me that no one cares how I’m feeling, or worse, that by trying to discuss my depression with others I’m imposing on them or hurting them. Intellectually, I can know that statement isn’t true, but it doesn’t change the force of the feeling, and that feeling is very difficult to overcome.

Similarly, depression is self-reinforcing by sabotaging things like my daily practice. I know, in my head, that doing my daily practice is good for me and may actually help me be less depressed. But in my feelings, it’s not only hard to do my practice, it’s not rewarding once I’ve accomplished it. There’s no “think of how good it’ll feel when you’re done” as motivation because it doesn’t feel good when I’m done. Sometimes it feels relieving to cross one thing off my to do list, but only in the sense of not having it hanging over me any longer; sometimes it just doesn’t feel like anything.

At times like this, it feels like I’m faking my practice, or doing it in an empty fashion. (When I’m depressed, empty is at least better than hurting.) That plus difficulty concentrating makes it pretty hard to do even the simplest devotions or meditations. Yet I want to keep doing them, if only so that I know I’m not making things worse or letting things get worse by letting that part of my life slip away.

Have others gone through something similar with spiritual practice, especially with depression? How do/did you deal with it?

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Beltane – Sacred Sex

I’m continuing to republish a series of articles. This one was originally written in 2012.

In addition to the four Elements, on the cross-quarter days of the Wheel of the Year this year I’m going to explore four major themes or concepts that I think are deeply important in Wicca. Please note that Wicca is not the only kind of Paganism that there is and that even within Wicca interpretations vary widely, so this is not authoritative about anyone else’s practices or beliefs. It’s offered as food for thought.

Wicca is not a religion based on a text. Even the forms of worship vary tremendously, with nothing resembling a formal liturgy that is widely accepted or agreed upon. Most Wiccans, though, are familiar with a few important pieces of writing and many use them in ritual at times or consider them important reflections of the religion. The best-loved of these is Doreen Valiente’s The Charge of the Goddess.

The Charge exists in many forms and has been revised over the years by different practitioners. Here is a version by Starhawk, a famous feminist Pagan author. I’ll note that some people use the whole thing, but I personally only use the section from “Hear now the words of the Star Goddess…” to the end. In British Traditional Wicca, the Charge is read at each ritual, and others may use the Charge similarly, especially near Beltane. The reason is simple. One of the most oft-quoted lines of the Charge says:

Let My worship be in the heart that rejoices, for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals.

In Wicca, sex is sacred. This has a lot of metaphysical connotations: the union of Goddess and God is seen as the source of everything, and stories of that union take many forms. But it’s also about the purely human. Beltane is traditionally a fertility festival, even more so than Ostara, perhaps; as we begin to enjoy the longer days and warmer temperatures of spring and summer, it’s natural to be interested in making whoopee. And as we noted at Ostara, our nonhuman neighbors also tend to engage in acts of love and pleasure with great enthusiasm around this time of year.

But for me, it’s important to understand that this valorization of sex is about a lot more than it can seem. Yes, “all acts of love and pleasure” certainly refers to intercourse, and it also refers to a lot more than that; any loving act of pleasure is included, regardless of the genders of people involved. It doesn’t say “acts of love and pleasure that lead to conception” or even might lead to conception. To me, it’s a bit misleading to say that this is about fertility – unless one expands the concept of fertility to mean a lot more than simply making babies.

One of the ways I like to express this is to say that it’s not as much about having sex as it is about making love. My partner and I make love with each other in all kinds of ways that happen fully clothed and outside the bedroom: he makes dinner, I do the laundry, he gives me a foot rub, and we go to sleep having expressed our love for each other with great depth and passion, just not with “sex” per se. Don’t get me wrong – sex is one of my favorite ways of making love – it’s just not the only one, or the most important one for all situations.

Think also about the meanings of the word “intercourse.” Yes, it is usually used only to refer to sex these days. But historically, its meanings have included what today we might call “dialogue” or “exchange,” where people engage with each other in any number of non-physical ways. To me, these too can be acts of love and pleasure. When two friends have an engaging conversation that leads to the creation of a work of art, I can see that as a kind of non-sexual “intercourse” which has also brought forth something new in the world. And if a work of art has a life of its own, as we often express it metaphorically, then this too is a kind of fertility, of bringing new life into the world.

These expanded ideas of intercourse and fertility make my understanding of Wicca one where sex is sacred not because of sex acts themselves, but because it is one of the most wonderful, vital examples of a whole class of activity – all acts of love and pleasure. Wicca is about connections: connections within nature, connections to deity, and connections between individuals. All acts of love and pleasure that create and celebrate connections between people, especially ones that are fruitful or productive in those people’s lives, are sacred.

This weekend, participated in a ritual that included dancing the Maypole. The Maypole has a long history as a fertility symbol. But what struck me about it, as I steadied the pole and my friends whirled around me, was not the pole itself, but the network we wove as we did so. This wasn’t just about union between two people; it was also about community, coming together to celebrate how our interconnections are important to the fabric of our lives, and how those interactions bear fruit in so very many forms.

And those are what I celebrate this Beltane. Yes, I include plenty of bawdy humor and making love both in and out of the bedroom with my partner, but I also celebrate the ways that I connect with others: through song and story, image and word, through all the myriad interconnections that make my world the vibrant, vital place that it is. One of those is the Slacktiverse, and so I celebrate each and every one of you, too, this season. With that, I wish you many acts of love and pleasure, of many different kinds. Bright Beltane to you all!

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Daily Tarot Practice

I’ve discovered that a daily Tarot practice is a great way to get better insight into the meanings of the cards as they relate to everyday life. I’ve been working on my daily practice lately – and I’ll be writing more about that soon – and have made it a habit to draw three Tarot cards daily.

Like other kinds of daily practice, this is something that many teachers and books advise, but I don’t know how many people actually do it. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how useful it’s been.

One of the things it often does is reflect back to me what I already know; you could make an argument that this is entirely what Tarot does, and it’s very useful! By highlighting some things and bringing them further into my conscious attention, Tarot helps me figure out what is most important for me to be concentrating on at a given time. This helps me use my own self-knowledge more effectively. For example, when I’m having a bad day with depression and I draw the Five of Cups, seeing the card reminds me to acknowledge my feelings and take extra time for self-care.

Another way daily work with the cards has helped is by allowing me to discover more mundane meanings of the cards in my life. I don’t know about you, but most of the meanings I’ve learned for cards are expressed in broad, generalized language that has a lot to do with the psychological implications of the cards. This is useful because it allows for a broad range of interpretations, but it doesn’t get into the nitty-gritty of practical meanings very much.

Those practical, mundane interpretations are something I’m discovering for myself. The Six of Swords can mean a lot of paperwork and bureaucratic hassle. The Lovers is a beautiful card, but the Two of Cups has more to do with connecting with my love in day to day life. And I can’t tell you how often lately the Chariot has come up when I’m going to spend a long day in the car.

If you’re thinking of starting a regular Tarot practice, start small – maybe even just drawing a card a day. If you’re learning Tarot, it can help you practice remembering the meanings of the cards. If you’re experienced, maybe you’ll find new meanings or just get a heads-up on what your day may hold for you. Either way, incorporating Tarot into your daily practice can be rewarding. I’d love to hear about how it works for you.

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Oklahoma bill to discriminate

Marriage licenses, doing it wrong edition!

The Oklahoma House has passed a bill that would require all marriage licenses to be signed by clergy. This is a direct attack on separation of church and state: it effectively requires people who want legal benefits which are administered by the state to interact with religion. This is doing it backwards – we ought to be working on separating civil and religious marriage, not further conflating them.

Now it’s true that I fought for the right to sign marriage licenses in Virginia as a clergy person, and I would do so again. I did that as a stop gap, because it’s one of the ways “real” religions are recognized and because until we get to a better separation of civil and religious marriage people want their clergy to be able to do that. It’s unfortunate that the option of having a civil license signing is seen as a “lesser” option, but that’s part of the problem. However, even at the time I said that I didn’t think this was the way it should be, and that I advocated separating civil and religious marriage celebrations.

What’s really nasty about the bill in Oklahoma is that the originators say that they are concerned about protecting the delicate feelings of the public servants who have to do marriage licenses. Apparently the mere possibility of being confronted with two actual gay people is deeply disturbing to these public servants. In reality, this is a way to increase discrimination by pushing a public function off onto private individuals – clergy – who have a legal right to discriminate.

The spurious explanation makes this bill even more disgusting. As a clergywoman, as the wife of someone who served his country for many years, and as a regular citizen, I find that handwaving defense egregiously offensive to the very idea of civil society.

Public servants have to be prepared to put their personal scruples aside in a multitude of ways. That’s why it’s called public service – you have to serve the public, not just do what you want to do for the people you find acceptable.

I just went through the process of getting my Ohio driver’s license. The public servants who do that work have to deal with lots and lots of people from all walks of life. In the relatively short time I spent in those offices, I saw people who looked like me and people who didn’t. There was a man with an offensive (to me) t-shirt and a woman wearing hijab. There were people who didn’t speak English and people who didn’t share my standards of personal hygiene. And all of them, every single one, deserves the exact same standard of consideration and service from those public servants.

And the folks in the driver’s license offices have a relatively straightforward job. If you choose to work in the court system, you’re going to be dealing with a lot of people who are there especially because they’ve done something that society considers unacceptable – and I don’t just mean smoking pot or driving while black. You’re going to be dealing with felons and deadbeat parents and all kinds of people. Even if you only ever work in the marriage office you’re going to be dealing with people who are on their third or sixth marriage, you’re going to be dealing with some guy in his 70s marrying an 18 year old where you can’t tell who is taking advantage of whom, you’re going to be dealing with some guy who has been divorced by his previous two wives for violent abuse but has found another woman who is convinced that he’s changed, and so on and so forth, day in and day out.

If you go into public service, you get to serve the public. No exceptions. You don’t get to put your feelings or personal preferences into the judgment space. It’s your job to see that the paperwork is filled out correctly, that they’ve got supporting documentation, and that everything is above board and legal according to the laws as they are currently constituted. When those laws change, you change with them. If you want them changed, you go out there on your private time just like every other citizen and do what you can. But at work you take your feelings and you put them someplace else and you serve the public.

This bill is especially insidious because there is so much potential for collateral damage. How are atheists supposed to get married? How are Catholic divorcees supposed to get married? Yes, most people would be able to find a friendly UU minister or somebody similar, but why should they have to? In order to get the state-administered legal benefits of marriage, they should be able to go to the state, file paperwork, and get a signed license.

Deep down, I don’t think this bill is really about protecting public servants’ feelings. I think that is an excuse, and the lack of consideration for the collateral damage is one indication that the real motivation is simple bigotry. Whether or not this bill passes the Oklahoma Senate and is implemented, we will see many, many more attempts like it because this is the modern-day equivalent of the attempts to avoid desegregation by closing the public schools.

This bill is nothing less than an attack on the fundamentals of civil society. Our society is trying to evolve to afford more basic civility to all its members, and as that evolution takes hold, one of the only possible responses by the fundamentalists is to try to tear down civil society as a whole. We cannot allow that to happen; as more of these attempts occur, we need to recognize them for what they are, call them out, and stop them in their tracks.

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Now in central Ohio

Just a quick update: for anyone interested in working with me, I am now teaching and offering services in the central Ohio area. See my pages on services and teaching for more.

I hope to have some classes and workshops to offer soon, so stay tuned or contact me to set something up!

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