Lunasa – John Barleycorn

But John Barleycorn proved the stoutest man
Though they did all that they could
So raise up your horn and praise John Barleycorn
And we shall drink his blood
Yes, we shall drink his blood!

- Heather Alexander’s version of old English folk song “John Barleycorn”

I’m continuing to republish a series of essays originally written in 2011.

John Barleycorn is one of my favorite versions of a god archetype that is particularly relevant at this time of year: the god of vegetation who dies and is reborn. There are innumerable versions of the poem and folk song that tell his story, including one by Robert Burns. [1]  The story is a metaphor for the agricultural cycle of barley, and by extension nearly any grain crop, personified in “little Sir John.” [2]

In the Northern Hemisphere, the Sabbat at the start of August is called either Lammas or Lughnasadh, and under either name it is a celebration of the first fruits of the harvest, and especially the beginning of the grain harvest. The consistent theme at these celebrations is thanksgiving that there is a harvest to be gotten in, and that communities come together to do the hard and vitally necessary work of harvesting. In the Southern Hemisphere, this Sabbat is Imbolc, which is also a festival of change, but in a different way, focusing on poetry and inspiration, and the end of winter, rather than preparing for the coming winter as we in the Northern Hemisphere must do at this time.

Lammas comes from the Old English for loaf-mass, the offering and blessing of the first symbolic loaves made from the newly-reaped grain, representing the whole harvest to come. Lughnasadh is the festival of the Celtic god Lugh; he is said to have instituted the celebration in honor of his foster-mother after her death. [3] As far as we can tell from surviving information, in old Celtic cultures this was a time for communities to gather and engage in games and contests of skill, especially martial skill, but it was also a celebration of the harvest.

The Lughnasadh festival was considered a good time for people to come together in more ways than one. Because the harvest assured people that they could plan for the winter to come, this time of year was appropriate for finalizing all kinds of arrangements, including living situations from renting lodgings to setting up marriages and handfastings. A handfasting, according to some sources, may have been a kind of trial marriage that lasted for “a year and a day” and could be dissolved without prejudice at the end of that time. [4] In a largely agricultural society, the gold of the grain was more important than a gold ring to making it possible for a couple to live together.

The song of John Barleycorn – a story of violence and death – may seem like an odd tune for these festivals of fresh bread and new weddings.  The conflict is resolved when we realize the story is not just about death, but death and rebirth. Little Sir John comes back in many forms, none of which are exactly the same as the life he lost. He is reborn, not resurrected.

John Barleycorn is another face worn by the Green Man, the god of living things that are green and growing, things that live and die and live again, year in and year out, around the Wheel. The Green Man or the vegetation god often appears in art, especially carvings, as a face made of leaves, sometimes with vines and grasses growing from his mouth or flowing as his hair. As I have found common in Paganism, he “speaks in leaves,” that is, in complex symbols without a single, simple allegorical meaning, so there is not just one story but many going on simultaneously as we try to read his story in the leaves and in his songs. [5]

In the song, John Barleycorn, the seed, is planted and buried, by men who are vain enough to assure themselves that he is dead. But because Barleycorn knows that the tomb is also the womb of the earth, he sprouts and begins to grow. As the grain begins to ripen, it is described in some versions as the figure growing a beard. This is a literal description of ripening grain, which grows long thin protrusions called the beard or awns, but it could also be a symbol of puberty, with all the attendant metaphors between sexual and agricultural fertility. In Burns’ version, though, he describes this growth as “pointed spears” that are Barleycorn’s defense, until he ages and becomes weak in autumn. In either telling, Barleycorn’s ripening marks the point that he has become useful to others, and by the same token, it is the time that he is beginning to be ready for his next death.

Then in great detail the story and song describe the cruelties inflicted on Barleycorn, all of which refer to the activities of preparing grain for human use: cutting the stalks, binding the sheaves, loading the grain, threshing, and milling. But here the song departs from the Lammas theme of the importance of bread. Burns’ version gives away the difference by including the step of malting the barley over a fire before it is ground, which makes it ready for brewing beer, which will be the ultimate rebirth of the barley. Some versions insist that Sir John was not only made into the everyday beer, but also into stronger stuff such as uisge beatha, the “water of life,” better known today as whisk(e)y.

The song ends with a verse or two about how everyone partakes of Barleycorn’s reborn “spirit,” pun very much intended. This is why I describe Barleycorn’s process as a rebirth, rather than a resurrection; the parts of the grain that are used, whether for bread or for brewing, are completely transformed. Only the small portion reserved as seed will give birth to new grain next year. Even then, it will be cut down in turn, in the repeating cycle that closes the circle of the song and of the Wheel of the Year.

Now, I don’t focus on this song to imply that everyone ought to drink alcohol; although alcoholic drinks may have been healthier than plain water in the past, today that is (thankfully) no longer the case for most people in the developed world. And although beer, sometimes called “liquid bread,” may once have been an important source of calories, grain-based foods are seldom in short supply these days.

The important point is that the song ends with examples of people doing work together and celebrating as they share “little Sir John in the nut brown bowl,” or as Heather Alexander puts it, “raise up their horns.” This beer is more than a health measure, a source of calories, or an intoxicant. Its importance comes from its place in shared celebration. This sharing in the harvest is more than just a source of sustenance. It symbolizes the way we also need hilarity and opportunities to socialize, to join with other people in feast and festival.

From start to finish, the song subtly reminds us that we need each other. It’s not just one man fighting against John Barleycorn; it’s three men who plow him, and then all the different people involved in the processing of the grain. And at the end, when the singer or poet addresses the audience directly, it is an acknowledgment that we are all human together. Just as these festivals weren’t instances of individual and private devotion, none of the harvest tasks could be done by one individual alone. The cooperation of the entire community was necessary to have enough to eat, let alone extra to brew into celebratory beer!

We’ll see these themes of work, life, and rebirth played out over the next few Sabbats, culminating in Samhain and Yule, but this is the start of that process, and a clear sign that the Wheel is turning to such matters as the harvest and the very heart of some of the most human Mysteries of all. As we go into them, it is important to note that what matters is not that John Barleycorn is resurrected in some perfected, idealized, changeless form that will exist forever. What we find is rebirth, like the rebirth of John Barleycorn, the irrepressible spirit of life that continues to renew itself in myriad forms and through myriad generations.

That is what I worship about the vegetation god, and it is the starting point that helps carry us through the darkening part of the year. No matter what happens in those many deaths and rebirths, we remain children of Earth, connected to the cycle, and always alive in the sense that something carries on – although it may be greatly changed in form.

The deepest meaning of the song, to me, is that when John Barleycorn rises again, his spirit rises within each of us. When we eat bread and whether we drink beer, or tea, or juice, we are partaking of that spirit of irrepressible life, which flows into each of us to make our own lives possible. It is the very interconnections in which we live our lives, both in relationships with others and in relationship with the world around us, from which we draw sustenance and to which we will return. On this Sabbat, we come together in celebration to acknowledge that cycle and to reaffirm our role in the shared work and shared rewards of the harvest.

—–

[1] ^ This video has a good performance of the song with reasonable sound quality; you may want to listen while you read.

An Ulster variant speaks from the point of view of the barley itself in some verses, a good reminder that at times we are the harvester, and at times we are the harvest itself.

This Morris dance to the song has additional Pagan symbolism. The character in the center wearing mixed colors is Barleycorn and the four around the edges are the Elements. Yellow, in the East, is Air, red in the South is Fire, blue in the West is Water, and the brown-green in the North is Earth. (The video is taken from the south side of the circle, facing north.) At the beginning, the central character clacks sticks with each Element, invoking its power, and they all interweave in the dance, finishing together, centering on Barleycorn, to show the way all living things (and all things, really) partake of all four Elements.

Versions of the lyrics may be found here and here for the Heather Alexander ones.

Burns’ version and a comparison to a conflated version of the usual song lyrics is at this site.

[2] ^ Note that throughout this article and the tales of John Barleycorn, “corn” means grain in general, not specifically maize as it does in the US.

[3] ^ The god and festival are respectively spelled Lu (with accent) and Lunasa (which means the month of August) in modern Irish, and pronounced “loo” and “LOO-na-sah.” The tales of Lugh are many and complex.

[4] ^ This was also a marriage contracted by agreement between the couple themselves, rather than their families, with or without a specified length attached, and without the need for clergy. This type of marriage has a long and contested history in Europe. Contemporary Pagans have adopted the term for nearly any relationship commitment ceremony.

[5] ^  King, Laurie R. The God of the Hive. New York: Bantam, 2010, p 48.

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Where are my superpowers?

I have been dealing with my food allergies a lot lately, and I want to know: Where are my superpowers?

Food restrictions are difficult to live with at the best of times because food restrictions divide people during a fundamental activity: eating together. Sharing food and drink, and even more so providing food for another person are deeply symbolic acts of bonding. Their widespread role in hospitality laws and rituals shows their importance. In some ways, food restrictions act as the inverse of hospitality practices.

I have long thought that this inversion of hospitality is one of the reasons religious food limitations carry so much significance. They delimit a population very powerfully; if we cannot share a meal, and welcome each other under our own laws of hospitality, then some of our basic ways of building relationships are out-of-bounds, which encourages one to stay with one’s own group. Similarly, in today’s world, it is a powerful thing to make ethical choices about one’s food; that’s why these choices become such a topic of debate.

The difference between allergies and the situation of religious or ethical food restrictions is that in both religious and ethical choices, the person making the choice feels that the choice is meaningful, and this feeling is reinforcement. The choice, and its social consequences, send a message, which is why it can be so contentious. Following through on the restrictions also sends a message to oneself: I am a member of this group, and not that; my choices and actions are in line with my intentions about such-and-such a concern, or whatever is important enough to limit one’s food.

It’s true that those feedback messages can devolve into smug self-righteousness, or looking down on other people, and that’s awful, but whether the self-image is a good thing or not, those feedback messages are part of the reinforcement that helps one make the food choices over and over again, and go through the effort of seeking out certain foods or avoiding others, of navigating the social landscape around eating. However graciously or ineptly one handles the situation, eating differently from those around you takes time, effort, and money, and concentrates social attention on oneself in a not necessarily pleasant way.

With food allergies or other medical restrictions, there’s no payoff,  there’s no deeper message, and there’s no positive reinforcement that helps us keep going. This isn’t like the stories where the protagonist chooses to give up something in order to get other benefits, and it isn’t even like the stories where a protagonist has a hidden flaw that “pays for” the other great skills she has. It’s just a handicap, with no upside.

In other words, where are my superpowers? Don’t I even get superpowers in exchange for all the things I can’t eat, all the times when I am the odd one out, the problem child, the person who everybody else has to accommodate? I’m not even asking for a separate power for every allergy – just one little teeny power, maybe?

Most people have no idea how frustrating these issues can be, and it’s easy for someone inconvenienced by another’s restrictions to resent the restrictions and even the person herself. Believe me, no matter how annoyed you are, you have no idea how much I wish I could relieve you of the burden of dealing with my allergies.

Imagine how you feel when confronted with the most obnoxious type of person whose eating habits are exactly opposite yours. If that person followed you around all the time and interrupted you to criticize everything you think about putting in your mouth, you’d be pretty annoyed by that person, right? You’d get pretty unhappy about her interrupting your routine, disrupting the dinner party, making it difficult to socialize with others, and sometimes even simply to feed yourself.

Now imagine feeling that way about yourself instead of about someone else. I hate my food allergies; I hate that I have to bring them up, that I have to refuse food, and that when I eat practically anything I haven’t personally prepared from scratch I run a calculated risk, over and over and over again, three meals a day. I hate that when that risk goes wrong, I have reactions that impact other people’s lives as well as putting mine at risk. I hate being afraid during such a fundamental activity as eating. I find the allergies as annoying as you find that fictional fanatic. But the allergies are part of me; I can’t get away from them.

And I don’t get anything in return. I don’t get the inner glow of knowing that my choices are contributing to better lives for animals, or that I’m supporting fair trade, or even that my restrictions are connected to anyone or anything besides an accident of biology. I don’t even get cool x-ray vision to tell me when I’m encountering an allergen – I mean, Superman knows when kryptonite is around, right? It has the cool green glow! Allergens don’t glow. They just sit there waiting to ambush me while I’m just trying to have lunch, maybe with a friend, or reward myself for a good day with something delicious.

This harsh reality is why I was so ticked off about the lousy depiction of disabilities in the Percy Jackson novels. In those stories, Jackson and all the other Greek demi-gods have dyslexia because their brains are “wired” to read ancient Greek. Nobody talks about struggling with the day-to-day grind of these issues, because they’re really just a convenient shorthand to make our protagonist the kind of person who overcomes obstacles, which actually turn out to be the root of his superpowers. Another character’s apparent mobility disability is explained away in similar fashion; the wheelchair is just a disguise, you see, and apparently he never gets frustrated with it or anything. It never risks his life, either.

I live in the real world, where things like food allergies, not to mention my other medical issues, don’t come with a convenient side of superpowers that make it all seem worthwhile. They’re not a sacrifice I’ve chosen to make in exchange for something else. They don’t have a deeper meaning or the resonance of generations of cultural practice. They’re not a side detail that the narrator can handwave away by tweaking the plot to accommodate me. They regularly force me to make difficult choices between regular exposure to small but significant risks and limiting my behavior in ways that would completely disrupt my life. They’re just as painful and annoying as any other restrictive food requirements, without any redeeming sense of meaning.

I don’t even get superpowers. Except not dying. Or not spending the night in the hospital. Those are good things – don’t get me wrong – but for most people they’re the baseline, the assumed normal, rather than something that has to be fought for on a recurring basis.

So when you’re dealing with someone with food allergies, please take them seriously, do your very, very best to accommodate the person, and don’t make it more of a social issue than is absolutely necessary to accomplish the goal of keeping the person safe. Because we don’t get superpowers. And sometimes it gets really tiring.

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Ritual for assisting transformation using the Eight of Wands

The 8 of Wands is a card representing energy, movement, and possibly the arrival of news. It is truly a card of Fire, because Fire is at heart about transformation, changing things from one state into another. If you’ve been doing any of the recent rituals, we want to draw on the gathering of energy that we worked on in May and the celebration of success that usually happens around Litha and bring those both together in order to put all of that to work towards a particular purpose that you choose. Of course, if you haven’t done the previous rituals, you can still do this one!

The Motherpeace card for 8 of Wands emphasizes these meanings by showing an archer shooting off arrows. (See the Motherpeace image by selecting 8 of Wands from the drop-down menu.) Take time either before you begin or after you’ve cast the circle to think about what you want to aim those arrows of intention at. What changes are happening in your journey right now? How can you advance them? What news is going to arrive? What messages are you sending out?

Materials: although none are strictly necessary, I suggest you use the 8 of Wands card from the Motherpeace or your favorite Tarot deck. You may also wish to place a candle alongside it to give you a spark of fire to use in your visualizations.

I suggest using the chant “She changes everything she touches, and everything she touches changes.” You can chant the words alone, or use the tune sung in this video. Don’t worry about the additional words; just stick with that basic chant.

Ritual:

Cast the circle quickly, seeing your intention moving swiftly along the paths you designate for it

Call the Quarters using these words or your own:

Air, blow straight and true to carry my words and thoughts!

Fire, power my intentions swiftly and surely!

Water, wash through me with the power of the tide!

Earth, let my intentions find their target!

Invoke a goddess of change and transformation such as Ceridwen or Hecate:

Goddess, queen of heaven, you remind us that all things change, just as your own appearance in the moon changes, always returning but never the same. On this night of full moon, I raise my energy to you to guide transformation in the direction I desire.

Alternately, invoke a messenger goddess like Iris or an archer goddess like Diana in your own words.

Take up your Tarot card and describe, out loud, the transformation, change, or message that you are sending out this evening. Light your candle, and carefully feel its heat as a tiny example of the energy that you are building up within yourself.

Chant: She changes everything she touches, and everything she touches changes

Raise energy while chanting, whether by dance, clapping, or other movement, or with your visualization alone. When you are ready, send all your energy flying out towards your target, launched like arrows to speed to your goal.

Pause and ground yourself afterwards.

Thank goddess:

Goddess of change and transformation, thank you for this moment and this energy to shape the difference I want to see in the world. Watch over it and me always, and go now with my thanks and praise.

Thank the Quarters:

Earth, my thanks for holding my goal steady!

Water, my thanks for keeping the tide flowing!

Fire, my thanks for the power of my intentions!

Air, my thanks for the words to describe the changes!

Open the circle, swiftly but surely, and ground yourself again. Either blow out your candle or let it burn out safely.

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Columbia’s Day

Today is the day I celebrate Columbia, goddess of the United States, more than any other. Since we also think of today as the “birthday of the country,” in some sense, my celebrations of her are not purely joyful. They are times of reflection, as other milestones in personal life are, as opportunities to look back on the time that has passed. This reflection leads to celebration, yes, but it also leads to mourning over hurts and losses. As with my personal work, I try to stay hopeful, even through the mourning; I try to find ways and reasons to hope for a better future. I have said before and will say again that Columbia is a goddess who calls on us to live up to our ideals, which is a constant process, hopefully one of improvement.

These thoughts and many others will be in my mind as tonight I connect with Columbia in her form as the Potomac river and watch the fireworks, timing the releases of my magic to their bursts of light and color.

As I live in the DC area, I work with Columbia very directly, in her forms in the mid-Atlantic landbase and ecology. But she takes on many other forms, also; I see her as Libertas, and sometimes as Ceres or other vague mother figures used in our artwork and symbology. I know she takes on other forms in other landbases, with the mountains and rivers, the animals and plants, of other parts of her country.

I’d like to hear about how you work with Columbia, whether under that name or as the spirits of place in your area. The anthology Columbia: A Devotional for the Spirits of America is currently accepting submissions. Please share the inspirations that come to you this day or in the future as part of our joint effort to continue the great project that is this country.

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Temperance and the Star

I associate strongly with Water imagery, so it’s no surprise that I love both Temperance and the Star. I was thinking recently of the similarities and differences between these cards, and I want to suggest the possibility that Temperance is more of a human-scale quality while the Star represents qualities that are more divine. Perhaps by “human” and “divine” there I mean something more like “bounded” and “unbounded,” respectively, but human and divine seem to describe the ways I would look to experience these cards in my life.

Temperance and the Star are both pouring: Temperance is pouring from one vessel into another, and the card can represent in part the correct balance or mixture of two substances. This idea of pouring a finite amount from one finite vessel into another finite vessel is very familiar to us in our everyday lives.

By contrast, the Star is just pouring out, endlessly, upon the earth. Although she is pouring from a bowl that should be almost empty, my image of her is that she is constantly refilled from within, just as a star shines on us without being diminished in our sight. At first, the association of a Star with Water imagery seemed odd to me, but now it makes sense; she is pouring out blessings, healing, and all good things, in a gentle but ever-renewed stream, just as the stars’ gentle light is always available to us.

This perspective was reinforced by the recasting of the Star as Grace in Lunaea Weatherstone’s Mystical Cats Tarot, which I was just exploring via the Fool’s Dog app. (Aside: I love the Fool’s Dog apps for exploring a new deck. If I want to get the physical version, I can; if one particular deck is not for me, then very little time and effort and no physical resources have gone into the exploration. The Mystical Cats deck is definitely for me, though!)

However else we describe it, to me grace is defined in part by its boundlessness; a grace that is limited or partial is grudging and shoddy and not really grace at all. This kind of grace is an ideal, though, and because of that it’s not really human. For example, as much as a minister, priestess, or healer can want to be a conduit of grace, one of the lessons we all learn is that as human beings, we are limited and constrained. We cannot constantly give without renewing ourselves, and there are some things we cannot give. It’s not that healing or blessing is a zero-sum game and that we are sacrificing ourselves for others, but we don’t have the boundless inner resources of a star, either. Even if the blessings flow entirely through from the spirits, our time, energy, and attention are limited. We all have to learn to find our balance, to do what’s best, what we can, and what works. This approach is much more like Temperance – being temperate in the sense of applying ourselves best, and that when we do approach empty, we find ways to refill ourselves.

If I were to apply these interpretations in a reading, I would adjust whatever advice I was giving related to Temperance to try to apply it to a human scale: look for ways to refill yourself, find balance within the finite nature of your situation, and so on. For the Star, thinking about grace, I would advise someone to look to the divine more directly, including looking for the hidden but always-renewed sources of peace, blessing, healing, and joy in their heart and soul.

What do others think about the tentative comparison I’ve established here? Do you see similar human/divine connections between other cards in the Major Arcana?

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Litha – Destruction Averted

I’m continuing to republish a series of essays originally written in 2011.

Litha, the summer solstice, is one of the Sabbats that can be a challenge to celebrate. Yule, the winter solstice, is usually easy to celebrate, because northern and western European culture is inclined to fear winter. Yule, when we begin to see the first evidence that winter will not last forever, makes it easy to celebrate: “We’re not going to freeze to death!” is definitely good news.

By comparison, summer is usually regarded as pleasant and positive. Stereotypically, kids love being out of school, people love spending time with their families, vacations are always fun, and all of that makes summer the time for recreation and enjoyment.

Of course, this can make it easy enough to celebrate Litha. If summer is such a good time, then not much more excuse is needed. [1]

But Litha reminds us that summer will end, so it can also feel like a letdown. The contrast is especially jarring for those who love summer but hold to the current astronomical definitions of the seasons, which use Litha to mark the beginning of summer: Yay, summer’s here! Now the days get….shorter? Huh?

This is one of several reasons that I use a different definition of the seasons. The way the eight Sabbats fit together, there are four derived from old Celtic fire festivals (Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh) and four from astronomical events (Yule, Ostara, Litha, Mabon). Historians have correctly pointed out that no Indo-European culture seems to have celebrated all eight; in particular, Mabon, the autumnal equinox, has relatively few roots in pre-Christian European culture. Yule and Ostara derive from Germanic roots, and the Germanic tribes and Celts spent more time bashing each other than sitting down and having respectful multi-cultural dialogue about how to celebrate joint festivals. [2]

But when Gerald Gardner was “improving” the material from the coven that initiated him, he added in the astronomical events, and in a fit of symmetry included even the less-celebrated ones. [3] Mostly, the idea of having a reason to party every six weeks or so is a pretty good one, so I can’t complain too much, and it gives us lots of leeway to adapt the celebration of the Sabbats to a wide range of four-season climates. As a result, there’s no one coherent mythical cycle that incorporates all eight Sabbats that has come down to us, so we find and make our own.

Anyway, astronomers have decided that it’s better to use astronomical events to define the seasons, so they mark each season as starting with its definitive event, which is utterly predictable and convenient for them but weird for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere who think that when it’s freezing and snowing in November, winter’s probably here already. Similarly, I don’t think it makes sense to say summer has started at the exact moment when the sun starts to spend less and less time in the sky every day.

Instead, I follow the older Celtic idea of the seasons that says the four fire festivals, which lie (pretty) neatly in between the four astronomical events, are the days when the seasons change. So for me, summer started at Beltane, Litha is its midpoint, and it will end at Lughnasadh, at the start of August. This means summer is the period when the sun is highest in the sky, both immediately before and immediately after the solstice. Just like “day” doesn’t start at noon and “night” doesn’t start at midnight, each season has its waxing and its waning.

Even understanding Litha as Midsummer means acknowledging that it marks the turning point and the year is inevitably turning towards winter once again. Wicca’s roots in Northern European culture include the implicit preference for summer and fear of winter. The term most Wiccans use for the afterlife, or place of rest and peace between reincarnations, is the “Summerland.” [4] If “heaven” is like summer, that makes a pretty clear statement that summer is much to be desired and while we might enjoy some parts of winter, it is mostly to be endured.

As we are all learning, though, more heat is not always a good thing. Global warming isn’t just bringing higher temperatures: the increased energy in the atmosphere is changing climate patterns and making weather events of all types – from frost to drought – more intense. And when it does bring higher temperatures and longer summers, it reminds us that we can no more live in the midst of constant scorching heat than we can in the midst of perpetual deep freeze.

On the other hand, constant, temperate stability isn’t necessarily the best thing, either. Even if the extremes are no place for us to live for long, perpetual balance isn’t automatically better. The examples of nature show us that we need the heat, and we need the cold, and we need the alternation between the two, just as we need day and night, not perpetual twilight. The flow, the change, the give and take between seasons and influences is an integral part of the dynamic, adaptive kind of balance in which living things find their active stability.

This helps us understand why Litha is a time to celebrate, not to mourn: we know that the waning year it ushers in is more that just a necessary but annoying interlude. But that intellectual knowledge doesn’t easily translate into the language of emotion and symbology, into the stories of myth, so let me put it this way: Litha is a time when we see destruction averted.

In many cultures, myths of creation and destruction are paired or linked. Some myths paint destruction and even death as not just the counterpart but the predecessor and catalyst for creation, such as the Babylonian myth of Marduk making the world from Tiamat’s body, or the Norse myth of the world being made of the body of the frost giant Ymir.

Other stories cast destruction as a consequence of actions that the created beings take: one Egyptian myth tells how Sehkmet was created by Ra to wreak destruction on the world and kill the humans who conspired against him, and the story of the Flood in Genesis is explicitly linked to the sinfulness of humanity.

Of course, these myths are never purely about destruction: Sehkmet was stopped; the Flood gave way, and Yahweh promised never to try that again, even hanging the rainbow in the sky as a symbol of his relinquishing rain as a weapon. But in the primarily linear conception of time that dominates most Western culture, these myths are mostly before-and-after stories. Even the Biblical flood, which can be seen as ending in a restoration of Creation, is a dividing point, one that is explicitly promised not to come again.

In Wicca’s focus on cyclical time, there is no single creation myth. The idea of rebirth at Yule serves a similar purpose, with the allegorical connection of the Sun and the vegetation god making the winter solstice a myth of re-creation every year. This idea of constantly dynamic life-cycles occurs on many scales simultaneously, too, from the rising and setting of the sun to the phases of the moon, to the turning of the year, to the lifespan of a person, and even to geological time.

Just as there is no single creation myth but an ongoing story, there is no single myth of the world being spared a disaster. Instead, the twin forces of creation and destruction are seen as parts of an ongoing cycle, feeding into each other. We face destruction from both extreme heat and extreme cold (and other forces, if they get out of balance), and Litha and Yule are both celebrations of destruction averted and the ongoing re-creation of the world.

As MadGastronomer’s article on the Eleusinian Mysteries pointed out, Southern European cultures, where great heat made summer the barren period, told their stories of destruction averted around summer, and Persephone was not the maiden of the springtime but the advent of the autumn planting, the return to the growing season that would get the Greeks through the next summer’s drought.

That sense of the necessary interplay – the way that the barren period is not just the counterpart to, but inextricably linked with the fruitfulness – is what we ought to try to express and celebrate at Litha.

Raj expressed how a similar cyclical view is at the heart of Hinduism: “The Hindu Supreme Trinity consists of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the More Complicated Than That. Shiva is often called The Destroyer, but he is not an evil being seeking the destruction of the world for his own gain. He is, after all, part of the Supreme Trinity. His role is to transform that which is into something new. In doing so, he does indeed destroy, but the destruction he wreaks is destruction for the sake of new creation.

“What this means is that in the Hindu worldview, as in the Wiccan, destruction is an integral part of the process of creation. Acknowledging the role of destruction in the reality we inhabit isn’t always a pleasant thing to do, and we are certainly not obligated to celebrate destruction whenever and wherever it occurs. We can, however, remember that a lot of the destruction in nature results in creation, so that ultimately, while destruction is ongoing, utter destruction is averted because creation, growth, and renewal are also ongoing.” [5]

While it heralds the sun’s waning, Litha is not about light or dark winning victories over each other, even temporarily, or about one end of the polarity between ice and fire being the “good” one; it’s about the constant interplay in the dance that is the turning of the Wheel of the Year. That cooperation and interaction are the real story of destruction averted, and not just averted, but transformed into the ongoing process of re-creation. Now that’s something to celebrate.

——

[1] ^ In US culture, Memorial Day has mostly become a similar celebration of summer, although ten years of war have created quite a few families with someone to memorialize and plenty of additional performances of often-empty patriotism.

[2] ^ Imagine the “barbarian” opponents of the Romans in Gladiator and the Celts from Braveheart trying to spend time together. The result would either be massive carnage or an all-night drinking bout that would end in…massive carnage.

[3] ^ I haven’t written much about Gardner. That’s on purpose. He’s considered the “founder” of modern Wicca. He said he was initiated by a millenia-old survival of prehistoric witchcraft; that may have happened, but he probably wrote a lot of the rituals himself, and is apparently the originator of many recognizeably Wiccan practices.

He had many personal foibles and some seriously objectionable beliefs and practices (most notably sexism and Orientalism). Personally, I think getting rid of some of that dross he mixed in is one of the signs of progress in Wicca in recent decades, but that’s just me. Wicca has changed and diversified tremendously since Gardner, so don’t judge all of Wicca or all Wiccans on the basis of Gardner.

[4] ^ Adopted from Spiritualism. Wiccan beliefs on what happens after death are complex, highly individual, and not necessarily coherent, but it is common parlance to speak of someone “going to the Summerland” or “being in the Summerland” after death. Wiccans who think about reincarnation may describe the Summerland as a place of rest and joy between incarnations.

[5] ^ I would like to thank Raj for his excellent contribution here and even more for his tremendous help in discussing the ideas behind this article with me. Our conversations and his commentary on Hinduism made it possible to develop these ideas fully, and to expand the scope of the inter-religious aspect beyond solely Western ideas and practices. I am deeply indebted to him for his cooperation and look forward to collaborating with him again.

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A simple ritual: Moon shadows

For this month’s ritual, I want to suggest a simple activity which can be as elaborate and engaging or as quiet and meditative as you want: looking at your moon shadow.

The weather is nice enough in most places at this time that going outside while the full moon is high doesn’t mean flirting with hypothermia. So why not get yourself out of doors while the full moon is the main light source and spend some time with your shadow cast by moonlight?

Shadows are curious creatures – appearing and disappearing, images of ourselves but shaped by our surroundings. Shadows cast by moonlight are even more rarely seen, unusual and perhaps revealing.

Turn your back on the moon and do ritual with your shadow as your partner. Can you feel it? What does it look like? How does it engage or not engage?

Meditate with your shadow. What does it have to show you, to tell you, to be for you?

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