This morning I participated in a lovely ritual of grief and embracing the darkness (ironically, interrupted for me by an electrical outage in my neighborhood–bit more literal darkness than I was banking on, there). I kept thinking of this song, one of my favorites and certainly apropos to this day.
Tonight is the deipnon, the offering to Hekate of the Crossroads. It is a liminal time, the moon’s turn into a new cycle. We’re also less than a week from the winter solstice, another point of turning from dark to light.
Yesterday I was the most depressed I’ve been since the pandemic began. COVID, the American presidential election, worries about my family and friends and co-workers, and the recent passing of a colleague have all been much on my mind, along with a deep question about what I’m doing here that may be precipitating a midlife crisis. (When women have a midlife crisis, I’m told, we abandon all our remaining fucks and go get PhDs. I already have two master’s degrees and I’m not sure I want to go through the far more rigorous meat grinder of a doctoral program. But I appreciate the sentiment.)
The thing is, even having a midlife crisis seems pointless. Just about everything seems pointless right now. Last week, a mentor talked about using this time of year to rest. Not even regenerate or recuperate–just rest. A Persephone time, of going below and letting the earth be dark and cold. What’s been astounding to me, in contrast, is to note that next year’s buds have already begun emerging on the trees. Songbirds have grown round and fluffy, species that summer in the hills and mountains coming down to the city for the winter. Everything is always going on, whether I am or not. It’s comforting, in a way. I can pull the blankets over my head and give myself over to dreaming.
These are the times when Hekate is nearest. Not because it’s the night of the deipnon, but because Her torch illuminates those moments of uncertainty, draws our context into sharpest relief just when we feel the most lost.
I’m not quite ready to seek that light yet. I guess, if I have faith in anything, it’s that it’ll be there once I am.
Thuja plicata is widespread across the Pacific Northwest. Though it resembles cedar, it is not a true cedar but a member of the cypress family. People of indigenous cultures here refer to it as the “tree of life” because you can use it for so many things: medicine, food, building material, making all sorts of tools and other objects, even clothing. It is also, experience confirms, the best tree to take shelter under when it’s raining. Depending on how thick the fronds are the ground underneath might even be dry.
The cypress tree is sacred to Artemis, and also associated with Hekate.
I’m living in two different spaces right now because of a nature program I’m attending, so I assembled a traveling altar. Still need to find the right box for it. But here it is.
I walk out onto the open grass, a place bordered on two sides by wetlands, near to but separate from the lodge house and the garden. Other than the grass, the only thing of note out here is a patch of earth, part-overgrown. In years past, I’ve done ritual in this place with fellow dedicants–some just for the weekend, many longer term. Because of the pandemic, no group events are taking place here just now, and I am here as a sometime resident, not a retreat facilitator.
The full moon is high above, close to the apex of its arc. Though the air around me is still, moonlight illuminates thin clouds chasing across the sky, driven before a high-altitude wind. Between the moon and the horizon stands Orion, a winter’s companion in this hemisphere. Over twenty years ago, as I was walking home alone at night, Orion was in the sky and a prayer came to me:
Hail to Thee, O winter’s sky.
Hail to Thee, O celestial mother.
Hail to the wise one in the waning of the year.
Under Thine eye, I’ll have no fear.
At the moment, I feel a little self-conscious. There’s no one around–the other residents have gone to bed, or at least indoors. The temperature hovers right around freezing, though water still runs in the nearby stream, in the little culverts and ditches the caretakers here have created to keep the water moving. Far away, dogs are barking, and a train’s horn sounds in the night.
I look up, make my invocation to Selene, and pour an offering of water.
I am living here because I am at present a student at Wilderness Awareness School next door, and the drive in from my home in Seattle is just a little too far every day for convenience. Besides, I like this place; when I’ve co-hosted retreats here, I’ve always wanted to stay longer and explore the grounds more. This fall I’ve finally walked the trail that circles the wetland on the north side of the property, looking for animal sign, birds, and interesting plants. In the program I’m participating in, I dive deep into Artemis’s world: a world where harmony with nature isn’t just a sweet idea, but essential to ourselves as human beings, to our survival.
My prayer to her, a text from Hellenic Polytheism: Household Worship, feels a bit rote. It’s not the fault of the text. My invocations always feel more powerful when I extemporize. But I am trying to learn these words too, absorb and project the force of their meaning through memorization and repetition. It’s like learning a piece of music. My voice is quiet, probably not carrying as far as I think it does. I’m no stranger to doing ritual in public, to doing ritual in this exact spot, even; but it feels different when I’m alone. I don’t particularly want to have to explain myself.
I finish the prayer, and pour an offering of wine.
I look up at the moon again and begin the invocation to Hekate. As I do, I feel a sense of something listening, a presence that I know comes from having done ritual to Hekate specifically in the exact spot where I’m standing, a few times before. One of those times was just a little over a year ago: Wyrd Sisters 2019: At the Crossroads began and concluded right here, opening and closing with invocation and recognition of Hekate as one of the patrons of the weekend. Two months later would come the first stirrings that a new infectious pathogen was beginning its spread across the world. In a way, that’s why I’m standing here now.
My voice takes on something like a cadence; the text in the book is adapted from a hymn that I know well. Knowing the words so that you don’t have to read them, don’t even really have to think about them before speaking, has a certain kind of power. In that moment my past in this place, years of weekend retreats with fellow witches and polytheists, offering devotion and making magic, slides together with my present, when I live here for half of every week, get to know the birds and the trees and the wildlife, how the seasons change in this place, and what it’s like to be here for long turns of days, instead of in and out of it like a liminal space from which one takes initiatory significance, and moves on.
I complete the third prayer, and pour another offering of wine. Then I stand there, looking up at the moon. The dogs, silent during the ritual, start up again. The broad swath of grass is ringed by cedar trees, the fronded evergreen of this region that is no true cedar at all, but which resembles it a great deal. The indigenous people here call it the tree of life, for much that is essential to life can be harvested from it. True cedar is sacred to the goddesses I have offered devotion to tonight. This place is not the place those goddesses come from. And yet I imagine some similarities might be found, though I wouldn’t presume to know what they are.
When the cold becomes more present for me than the emotional discharge of a ritual completed, I turn and walk across the grass, across the little metal bridge that leads back toward the lodge, and along a path through new-dug garden beds to the cabin where I sleep.
I think I want to do more ritual here, formal retreat event or no. I think this place would not mind.
Hear, Goddess queen, diffusing silver light, bull-horned and wandering through the gloom of Night.
With stars surrounded, and with circuit wide Night’s torch extending, through the heavens you ride:
Female and Male with borrowed rays you shine, and now full-orbed, now tending to decline.
Mother of ages, fruit-producing Mene, whose amber orb makes Night’s reflected noon:
Lover of horses, splendid, queen of Night, all-seeing power bedecked with starry light.
Lover of vigilance, the foe of strife, in peace rejoicing, and a prudent life:
Fair lamp of Night, its ornament and friend, who gives to Nature’s works their destined end.
Queen of the stars, all-wise goddess, hail! Decked with a graceful robe and shining veil;
Come, blessed Goddess, prudent, starry, bright, come moony-lamp with chaste and splendid light,
Shine on these sacred rites with prosperous rays, and pleased accept thy suppliant’s mystic praise.
Madrona trees (Arbutus unedo) are notoriously difficult to establish on purpose, but will establish themselves in unexpected places that appear inhospitable. Why is unclear, though it’s thought to have something to do with their mycelial networks.
This clump of madronas is growing on the rural acreage that my husband and I are tending–mostly by leaving it to itself right now, admittedly. The first time I saw it, I thought: Pan.
At this time of year I always start thinking about fire, as the northern hemisphere turns cold with advancing winter. Fire keeps us warm and keeps our spirits alive, whether it’s a bonfire started with traditional methods (I have been practicing with the bow drill this fall) or thermostat-controlled central heating.
This song from Korpiklaani, my favorite band, is about love and a god of love, but to me it’s also about fire: fire bringing heat, fire sparking magic, fire bringing people together. Especially now, when our impulse to gather puts us and those we care for, and even complete strangers, in danger, we have to keep the fire going however we can.