It’s been a wet and windy week, persistent cloud cover and blowing rain accentuating the ever-present gloom. At this time of year you can sleep in and still get up before the sun. I light the candles for my morning devotionals in complete darkness most days.
The ancient Greeks don’t seem to have ascribed much significance to the solstices. That far south, the swing in duration of daylight from solstice to equinox to solstice again would not be nearly so dramatic, even before the days that electric lights extend our waking hours. But here in the Pacific Northwest, when you’re leaving for work in the dark, coming home in the dark, and looking out the window at gray sky and pouring rain in between, the encroaching darkness takes on a significance of its own. This region’s seasonal cycle fits the Wiccan Wheel of the Year, construct that it is, very well, and even though I only follow it socially these days, marking the longest night in particular seems appropriate.
It’s a time of gathering in and taking stock. My practice shifted to a more rigorous and formal level this year in a number of ways; so too, the devotional group Wild Gods (as distinct from this blog) has been having some conversations about our future, what we want our collective identity and practice to look like, whether to engage in more public or semi-public work, whether to formally associate ourselves with groups and organizations doing things similar to what we do. What does it mean to follow gods whose apogee of worship took place millennia ago? What does it mean to follow a devotional cycle established in a place different in climate, geography, and culture than the one which we inhabit? We aren’t the first to be asking these questions; we won’t be the last. Once you answer the first question (why worship any gods at all?) there are only more questions to come.
A few years ago, hygge experienced one of those brief swells of interest that are a hallmark of this interconnected age of short attention spans. For me this season in particular has been wrapped in that feeling, like an envelope of coziness and physical and emotional comfort. Perhaps it’s a reaction to political uncertainty (to understate the situation in America rather a lot), or the full leafing-out of middle age (I’m 44), or the awareness both of my own personal good fortune and of how many are struggling to just keep a roof over their heads and food in their mouths despite living in the richest, most productive country the world has ever known. Maybe I’m just tired. But this week in particular I’ve been wrapping the darkness around me like a blanket, listening to the wind and rain beating against the walls of my house. Even the weather becomes an insulator.
It’s a time to rest. It’s also a time to think about the future, as soon the daylight will begin to lengthen, the weather to shift, the earth to awaken, the sprouts to poke out of the soil, the migrating birds to journey north, the mammals stir out of their winter nests. Not a time to plan, not yet. Planning is too ambitious, for this season.
It’s a time to dream.
In ancient Greece, a person seeking healing might go to the appropriate temple (to Asclepius or Apollo, for instance) and go to sleep. Whatever they dreamed was deemed to be the treatment for their ailment.
I have a somewhat uneasy relationship with this idea, mostly because I’ve always had a somewhat uneasy relationship to dreams. I’ve never quite moved beyond the idea that they’re the detritus of the mind during the recuperation of sleep, and if they seem to have some significance, it’s because we are pattern-making creatures and of course something that emerges from our own minds is going to seem significant: there’s a good chance that it’ll tie back to something we’ve actually seen, said, or done in waking life, or else we’ll rationalize it until it does.
Then again, I have similar feelings around many magical and divinatory techniques.
That doesn’t stop me from using them in ways that are useful to me.
Once you decide to pay attention to dreams–not necessarily to take them as reflection of reality, or take any action based on them, just pay attention–it changes your perspective. The world softens. For this past weekend’s sixth annual Wyrd Sisters retreat, we explored the intersection of dream, and wilderness.
Wilderness is a tricky concept, and a slippery one. Try to define it and you slip down a rabbit hole of cultural baggage and problematic history. Wild Gods is the name of the loose affiliation of folk who come together around our common practice, but ask us what we mean by wild and you’ll get a host of different answers. It’s not concrete, in a different way than how dreams are not concrete. In a sense, wilderness is itself a dream.
If, however, you accept the proposition that the world is in need of healing, and that a symptom of that need is the injury to the world’s wilderness (however defined), then if a dream can be interpreted in a way that offers healing to the dreamer…what dream is the world having of its own healing?
“But the goddess with a bold heart turns every way destroying the race of wild beasts: and when she is satisfied and has cheered her heart, then the huntress who delights in arrows slackens her supple bow and goes to the great house of her dear brother Phoibos Apollon…” — Homeric Hymn 27 to Artemis
My hairdresser and I have an ongoing conversation about hunting. She hunts, I don’t. Accreted around this difference between us, not in itself a source of contention, are various disagreements that we have concerning laws and regulations, cougars and wolves, and how humans live in and move through the wild.
Today is the Agrotera Thysia, the Sacrifice to the Huntress, in honor of Artemis’s first hunt at Agrai on the Illisos. It is also the Kharisteria, a festival of gratitude to Artemis, Pan, and Ares for the Athenian victory at the Battle of Marathon. Hunting serves a different role in a culture so much closer to subsistence as ancient Greece was than our own; while I know people who refuse entirely to participate in our industrialized processes of meat production, eating only those animals they harvest themselves, this is very much the exception to the rule. Nor could our current population support its demand for meat through hunting.
Yet hunting changes one’s relationship with the surrounding environment. Last year I studied wildlife tracking as another means of gaining this intimacy: once you know, concretely, that other beings are sharing a place with you, going about their own business and probably avoiding you in the process, you see the natural world differently. It is not solely for us; we are a manifestation of a natural world far larger and more varied than most of us ever think about. To consciously identify and pursue another living being in this larger world causes you to move through it in different way, to recognize its natural cycles. A hunter interested in continuing to hunt in the same landscape will not kill off mothers with young, nor the young themselves. Considered in this way, Artemis’s associations with death on the one hand–for She is associated with war as well as hunting, at least by the Spartans–and birth on the other make sense. I often refer to Her as a goddess of stewardship, a broader mandate than hunting and one which requires existing in harmony with one’s environment in a very concrete and pragmatic sense. The way that most of us live in 21st century America obscures this reality; most of us who eat meat will never be present at the death of something being killed so that we might live. If you ever have the opportunity, I recommend it.
Tracking wildlife brings you into alignment with hunting in another sense. At least some of the animals you track will be predators; thus, coming across kill sites is not outside the realm of possibility. A couple of fellow students recalled trailing a coyote across the dunes on the Oregon coast, to the moment when it came across a mouse. They followed the hunt, written in the tracks in the sand before them, until suddenly there were no mouse tracks anymore. More viscerally, it’s possible to come across feathers radiating from the spot where a bird was killed, or the sawdust-like remnants of a ruminant’s stomach long after whatever killed it has consumed or hauled away the rest. It’s impossible to retain any romantic notions of the gentleness of nature at such moments. In the wild, birth and death are going on all the time, and Artemis is a facilitator of both. Like Hekate, She is the guardian at a liminal gate through which beings pass from one state of existence to another.
I once described my dedication to Artemis as something like a pursuit, a hunt in itself: not only for wilderness, but for understanding of what wilderness means. The ancient Greeks understood it as a dangerous and even uncanny place, and with good reason. Today, we might be the greater danger, in either loving it to death, using it up, or both.
Pan, Pan, Io Pan,
If He can’t do it–
What’re we saying,
Of course He can!