Friday, March 30, 2012

Vendredi: Chthonian Histories

In Western mythos, ghouls are nasty creatures that terrify the living and consume the dead.  What exactly they might be is more often than not left to the imagination.  In some stories they are demonic creature, in others walking corpses and in still others a combination of the two.  Passing a cemetery at night – ill-advised in any situation – the traveler should avert his eyes to avoid seeing the hideous ghouls gnawing on the bones of the newly buried.

Ghouls actually come from Middle Eastern mythology, where they are the same as in western tales and yet different.  The word ghoul derives etymologically from the Arabic ghul.  This word may in turn come from the Sumerian galla, those demons of the underworld that dragged Inanna’s husband off to the realm of her sister Ereshkigal. 

In Arabic folklore, the ghoul is not just a haunt of cemeteries, deserts and wild places.  It may also take on the loveliest of forms and try to live among men.  A story illustrating this, called “The Merchant and the Demon”, may have been first written down in a Persian book which predates The Arabian Nights known as the Hazar Afsan.  Here, the poignancy of the ghoul’s netherworld existence is made clear in its relentless fight to live like a mortal.

An old merchant in the city of Baghdad began to believe that his days on earth were numbered.  He had only one child, a son, to whom the merchant would leave all his vast wealth.  The son was not yet married, however, and wanting to provide more than just material goods for him, the merchant arranged a lucrative marriage.

When the son was introduced to his fiancée, his heart fell.  Though she was from a good and wealthy family, she was not at all clever or pretty.  The son imagined a lifetime with this woman and decided that he could not face it.  He would need to reveal his feelings to his father, but how?  The old merchant was only doing what he thought best.  In despair, the young man roamed the outskirts of the city at dusk day after day.

One evening, when he was at his wits end, the young man heard a woman singing in the most beautiful voice.  He stopped, and peering over the vine-laden gate to his left he saw a maiden on the balcony of a small but tidy house.  She was the most charming thing the young man had ever seen and he stayed by the gate until her song was done. 

Evening after evening he stood outside the gate, falling in love with the young woman.  He began to ask around the neighborhood and found that she was a well bred young lady.  Her father, though wise and well respected, was poor.  The young man was too besotted to let this stop him.  He went to his father and proposed marriage to the young lady whose name he did not know.

At first, the merchant would not be convinced but, seeing his son’s sincerity and desire, he at last relented.  The old merchant contacted the wise man who, overjoyed at the thought of a wealthy match for his daughter, readily agreed to the nuptial arrangement.  The couple was introduced and the young woman returned the young man’s affection.  A sumptuous wedding feast was held, and the couple moved into the old merchant’s palatial home.

All went well for the first few weeks.  The young man did find it odd that his new bride would not join him at meals, but he shrugged this off as the jitters of a newly wed maiden.  One night, startled awake by the call of an owl, the young man was surprised to find himself alone in bed.  He waited for his wife to return, forcing himself to stay awake until she finally crept back into the room and under the sheet only moments before dawn.

The next night, the young man did not allow himself to dose and sure enough just at midnight his bride slipped out of their bed and left the room.  This happened night after night until finally the young man determined to follow her.  He found, to his amazement, that she left the house all together and hurried through the streets do Baghdad until she came to a cemetery not far from her father’s home.  She entered through the creaky gate and then descended into a sepulcher from which the young man could see the flickering light of oil lamps emanating.

Terrified but curious, the young man shored up his courage and approached the sepulcher.  He gazed down the steps and, to his revulsion and horror, saw his lovely bride at table with a company of hideous ghouls.  As they laughed and drank together, a fresh corpse was brought in and laid out on the table.  The young woman tore into it along with the ghouls, ripping it apart and tearing flesh from bone until nothing remained but the skeleton. 

Sated, the ghouls began to break up their feast.  The young man ran for home, jumped in bed, and pretended not to notice when his bride returned.  That night at supper, however, when the woman refused to partake of the meal before her, the young man snapped.  “Doubtless you prefer to take your wine and meat with the ghouls,” he said.

The woman stood up and left the house without a word.  The young man did not follow, assuming that his bride had returned to her own kind.  Instead he drank heavily, and fell into bed to sleep it off.  In the middle of the night he was awakened by a weight on his chest.  When he opened his eyes he was greeted by the sight of his bride, her fang-like teeth bared as she tried to rip open his throat.  The young man managed to fight her off and stab her to death.  She was buried the next day, in the cemetery where she had met her comrades.

Three nights later the young man’s bride returned to him.  Again, she tried to kill him, and again he fought her off.  When she ran away with a hideous shriek, the young man determined to end his nightmare.  With his father’s help, he had his wife’s tomb opened.  There she lay, fresh and pink as if she were only sleeping, with the stain of blood on her lips.

Father and son approached the young woman’s father, and he finally admitted that she had been of the walking dead all along.  She had expired from fever some years past and, after three nights, returned to his house where she resumed her prior life without ever speaking of the tomb.  He knew she was a ghoul, he acknowledged, but he did not have the heart to do away with her.

The young man, however, did.  He had her body burned to ashes and scattered what was left of her on the muddy surface of the Tigris river.  The young man married that less clever, less pretty girl, and he never ventured to the outskirts of Baghdad again.

Header: The Coffee Bearer by John Frederick Lewis c 1857

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Jeudi: Weather-Wise

Spring has sprung (in most places in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway) and for our agrarian ancestors that meant not only caring for but paying close attention to the animals around them.  If old wives are to believed, there was a lot of knowledge to be gleaned from seemingly coincidental contact with or behavior of the creatures of the world.  Today, a handful of examples.

Watch the cows when you let them out to pasture.  If the separate and graze each in their own space, fair, sunny weather is certain.  If they cluster together in pods, spring storms are in the offing.

When small birds like sparrows and chickadees continue to feed and chirp through a rain, a long spate of good weather is just over the horizon.

Hens and roosters grouped together under the eaves when the sun is shining bright is a sure sign of storms to come.  As old wives say: “Fowls can smell foul weather.”

Likewise, doves or pigeons suddenly returning as a group to their roost or pigeonniere foretell a swift change in the weather.

A rooster crowing in the rain means sunshine will soon prevail.

If the first butterfly you see in spring is yellow, you should wear a scarf all year to avoid a deadly fever.

Wishing to find affection when you spy the first robin in spring will bring true love before the end of the year.

If you see a fox digging in your garden, you should put down mulch against a late frost.

Header: A former pigeonniere transformed into a garçonnière (young gentleman’s cottage) at Burnside Plantation in Ascension Parish, Louisiana, photo courtesy of  enclos*ure take refuge

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mercredi: The Art of Beauty

In the modern west, we have been taught to believe – mostly through advertising – that if you have an issue you can pay to have it fixed.  Within the last 20 years we have come to believe, in an even more extreme version of this mantra, that we can buy something, take it home, and fix the problem ourselves.  Depressed?  Here’s a Prozac; take as you see fit.  Tubby?  Here’s the latest “supplement”; only five simple payments of $59.99 each.  Skin starting to sag?  We’ve got a cream for that.

Unfortunately, these little fix-its, despite their high price tags, rarely work for long if at all.  Sometimes the old fashioned way really is the best way of all.  Which leads us today’s ancient remedy for a host of ills that the flesh is heir to: body brushing.

Known since Ancient Egyptian times (Cleopatra VII was said to have this treatment done every other day without fail), body brushing is not just an excellent way to keep your skin healthy and glowing.  As any homeopath will advise, this at-home treatment also helps to remove toxins from the body, stimulate the lymphatic system, improve circulation, tone muscles and remove cellulite.  All this for a little time two or three days a week and the cost of a good brush or loofah.

The best time to undertake a full body brushing is right before you shower or bathe.  Three times a week is about the maximum number of brushings you should undertake as the treatment can harm your skin if followed too rigorously.  I try to keep to a regimen of twice a week whenever I’m at home.

First, buy a good, natural, firm bristle brush with a long handle.  The Body Shop and Sephora both have excellent brushes available, as do many whole food markets that sell natural bath goods.  Synthetic bristles will do more harm than good and natural bristles that are soft won’t get the job done.  A long, natural loofah sponge will do the trick just as well.

Brush with firm, circular strokes from your extremities toward your core.  I like to sit down and start with the bottoms of my feet, work up my legs and then start again with fingers and hands, moving up my arms.  Do your neck, back, belly and finally your chest.  Be sure to move the brush in a counter-clockwise motion on your stomach to aid digestion and avoid those sensitive areas like nipples and underarms.  Seriously, you’ll be glad you did.

Now you’re ready to step into the shower or bath and rinse off all that pore-clogging dead skin.  Remember to wash your brush with a mild soap – I use my shampoo while I’m showering – and allow it to air dry for next time.

As an aside, I don’t use a brush on my face but prefer cleansers specifically made to exfoliate.  Face brushing is done by some, but I won’t try to comment on it here. 

Once you get into the habit of dry brushing, you’ll wonder why you didn’t start sooner.  It is an especially good thing to begin when one is young, as the anti-aging benefits will show almost immediately.  A votre santé ~

Header:  A Tangerian Beauty by Jose Tapiro Baro c 1876 via Old Paint

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Mardi: Herbal-Wise

Rowan trees, also known as European mountain ash, are indigenous to Northern Asia and Europe and now grow all over the northern areas of North America.  Because the trees – which are really bushes and not relation to the North American ash or to the birch – cannot thrive where temperatures do not dip below freezing in winter, they are not a fixture in hoodoo practice.  They are used in Pow-Wow, according to Silver RavenWolf, but their use is most notable in modern Celtic, Druid and Wiccan disciplines.

The rowan is particularly prolific in the British Isles, where the influences of not only ancient Druid but also Gardenarian practices are strong.  This makes rowan, along with trees such as oak and holly, particularly fond in these areas.  As an example, the so called Celtic Tree Calendar’s month of Rowan begins on January 21 and ends on February 17.  This calendar, though sometimes purported to follow an ancient Celtic method of time keeping, is in fact a latter day invention probably developed by Robert Graves.  For more on this, see Mary Jones’ excellent discussion here.

In modern magick, rowan wood is used to make dowsing rods and wands.  Scott Cunningham advises carrying a piece of rowan wood to increase psychic powers.  Rowan wood or leaves may also be burned on their own or added to incense to achieve the same result.

For the purposes of protection, rowans should be planted as close to a home as possible.  Rowan walking sticks are helpful for protecting those who must venture forth at night, while a rowan branch kept in a house will protect it from lightening strikes.  Rowan was also carried aboard ships to see them safely through dirty weather.  A rowan grave marker is said to ensure that the spirit of the deceased will not wander forth and trouble the living.

Scott Cunningham also recommends the use of rowan berries, particularly in workings for healing, success, power and luck.  Please note, however, that all parts of a rowan bush are potential poisonous and should never be ingested.

In Scotland, Wales and Cornwall, old wives tied two rowan twigs tied together with red thread to form a powerful protective amulet.  Bonne chance ~

Header: A rowan tree on the British coast via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, March 26, 2012

Lundi: Recipes

Everyone knows I’m not much for baking, but something like homemade rolls can elevate a nice meal to wonderful.  Today’s recipe, for blue cheese popovers, is an old Martha Stewart goody I have hanging around in my recipe file.  I haven’t made them in a while, but they are a true centerpiece for a light meal.  With a salad for lunch, or soup for supper, you can’t beat warm, savory popovers.

Note that the batter for this recipe is best refrigerated over night, so a little planning ahead is a must.

2 large eggs
1 cup milk at room temperature
2 tbsps unsalted butter, melted, plus a bit more to grease the muffin tins
1 cup all purpose flour
½ heaping tsp kosher salt
1/8 tsp cracked black pepper
1 ¼ oz blue cheese, crumbled
1 tbsp chopped fresh thyme

In a large bowl, whisk eggs, milk, melted butter, flour, salt and pepper.  Combine until lumps disappear.  Whisk in the cheese and the thyme.  Transfer your batter to an airtight container and refrigerate over night.

When ready to bake, place your oven’s rack at its highest position and preheat to 425 degrees.  Generously butter two mini muffin tins or one large muffin tin.  Fill each cup to the top with chilled batter.  Bake popovers until golden and puffy, between 18 and 20 minutes.  Repeat with any remaining batter and serve immediately.

This recipe is also great as a base for sweet popovers.  Substitute jam or chocolate chips with a pinch of sugar for the blue cheese and thyme for a delicious breakfast or dessert.  Bon appetite ~

Header: Kitchen scene by an unknown Flemish artist via Old Paint

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Samedi: Not Too Serious

OK, kids, this one is just for fun.  Joe Netherworld and Isis Vermouth bring you "Stupid Shit Witches Say".  I think we all understand where they're coming from with this.  The "Dark magick!" gag gets me giggling every time.  Enjoy!

Many thanks to ARTIST: Austin Young for the link; find his wonderful Tumblr site here.  (Please note: Mr. Young's site is not for everyone; if you are easily offended by alternative lifestyles, nudity & the occasional individual in drag, just don't click.  If you're under 16, go get Mom or Dad now)

Friday, March 23, 2012

Vendredi: Chthonian Histories

My daughter, who is in high school, is currently reading Dante’s Divine Comedy for her history class.  Recently, she and I have been having some very enjoyable discussions about the ever popular cantos that comprise The Inferno.  From “abandon all hope” to “and lo I saw the Beast”, it doesn’t get much better in literature.  Of course Dante’s famous poem is one of the first cases in Western literature of political satire masked as allegory, which makes it all the more delicious.  Plus how cool is it that a teacher of freshman history, at a public school by the way, is introducing his kids to some of the finest writing in our culture?

These conversations got me thinking about the chthonic stories in Jewish, Christian and Islamic history, and how much modern practitioners of those religions are unfamiliar with.  There’s a lot that has been sifted through the rigorous religious upheavals as chaff that actually would give a person pause if they really thought about it.  One such story, from the ancient Hebrew text known as the Book of Enoch, puts an interesting spin on the fall of angels and the archfiends of Hell.

“And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the Sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose” says the opening of Genesis 6.  But who were these “Sons of God” that found the daughters of men irresistible?  While modern Biblical scholars interpret them as “angels”, the scribe Enoch begs to differ.

In the Book of Enoch, their name is Ben ha Elohim.  This can be interpreted as Sons of God but it also has a more sinister meaning: Watchers.  These Watchers, Enoch tells us, never slept and were tasked by Yahweh with keeping track of the descendants of Adam.  Enoch makes it fairly clear that the Ben Ha Elohim are not, in fact, angels as were the “Big Four” Michael, Uriel, Gabriel and Raphael (in order of appearance).  In Chapter 11 he speaks of these Archangels and specifically calls them “Four presences different from those who Sleep Not.”  What, exactly, the Watchers were is not specifically spelled out.  But their difference from angels – who are interpreted in Hebrew liturgy as beings of spirit without physical bodies – is made clear in their actions.

Besotted by the daughters of men, the Watchers descended from Mount Hermon 12,000 years ago according to Enoch.  In a manner familiar to lovers of Greek mythology, the Sons of God propositioned the daughters of men.  Throwing in a clever twist, the Hebrew daughters refused to gratify their suitors’ lusts until they had struck a bargain.  The ladies would “marry” the Watchers, but only if they in turn agreed to teach humans the knowledge so far kept only in heaven.  The Watchers quickly agree and, evidently after pairing off with the fleshly maidens, begin giving humans lessons in metal working, agriculture, astronomy and, perhaps most curiously, the manufacture of perfume, make-up and fine linen.

The humans became adept at their new skills and the Watchers settled in with their wives.  As will inevitably happen, children began to be born from these unions, but they were not any kind of bouncing babies.  They were horrid monsters who wreaked havoc on the countryside, their villages and even their own parents.  In dismay, both human mothers and Watcher fathers appealed to Yahweh for relief from the oppression of their children.

Seeing the trouble he had evidently tried to ignore was now out of hand, Yahweh sent his Archangels to Earth to clear things up.  The Watchers and their offspring were driven into “the valleys of the Earth” where they were said to be imprisoned under stone until the Day of Judgment.  It may have been one of the leaders of the Watchers, Azazel, to whom the famous “scapegoat” was sent out on the yearly Day of Atonement.  Azazel was said to be buried at the bottom of a cliff at Haradan, and it was over this cliff that the goat was driven to carry the sins of the people back to their originator: the “Seducer of Mankind.”

Some esoteric scholars have argued that the Watchers were the first heavenly beings to transform into demons of Hell, with their leader Azazel as the capital D “Devil”.  Lucifer in this scenario is a later addition to the fold who was only driven out by Michael when he refused to acknowledge Christ – who is sometimes said to be Lucifer’s twin – as the Son of God.  Others say that Lucifer awaited the Watchers when they came to Hell, his sin being his refusal to bow down before Yahweh’s creation, Adam.  At that point one might as well argue the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin for all the good it does.

But the story of the Ben Ha Elohim is interesting if for no other reason that it is so infrequently told in this day and age when the intrinsic characteristics of religion like sex and violence are carefully weeded out of the flower bed.  Enoch also graciously set down a list of the names of the Watchers, which is interesting too but certainly another post unto itself.  Enough is enough, so to say.

Header: Lucifer Cast Out by Gustave Dore

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Jeudi: Curios

Animal parts have long been used in various magickal disciplines as amulets and charms.  From individual teeth and bones to whole skulls, wings and claws, the animal in question was used virtually in its entirety for food, tools and to assist in shamanic working.

Badger teeth, usually carried individually, came into hoodoo through John George Hohman’s now famous book Pow Wows or the Long Lost Friend.  Hohman wrote in the book in the mid-19th century and it has since been published in several additions by various publishers.  The work focuses on the folk magick of the German settlers of Pennsylvania, which was heavily influenced by Native American herbal and folk knowledge.  Hohman avers that a badger tooth is an all around good luck charm that should be carried whenever possible.

In American Folk Magick Silver RavenWolf touches on the use of animal charms in modern Pow-Wow but does not focus on specifics.

By the 1920s, hoodoo root workers were including a badger tooth in mojos for gambling luck, as well as those for general good fortune.  For gambling in particular, the tooth was often attached to a watch fob, necklace or keychain and worn in a pocket where it could be easily touched or rubbed for luck.  Dressing the tooth frequently, particularly with Van Van Oil, and saying the 23rd Psalm while doing so was thought to increase its power.  Bonne chance ~
Header: The Gambler’s Wife via A1 Reproductions

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Mardi: Herbal-Wise

Gentian or yellow gentian is used in both hoodoo and Wicca for love workings.  In hoodoo, a sprinkling of the plant’s dried root is also considered a good snake repellant.

In Wicca, gentian is used most often in love philters and sachets but it is also used to break hexes, usually by sprinkling the dried root or flowers around one’s property.  Scott Cunningham tells us that dried gentian added to any incense or sachet will increase the magickal power of that item.

Root workers use gentian for luck in love.  A bath to draw a lover or to rekindle a romance calls for the worker to rise before dawn and brew a tea of gentian root.  This should be added to a lukewarm bath.  Soak while burning two red (or white if you don’t have red) candles dressed, if possible, with a love drawing oil such as Love Me or Attraction Oil.  If these are not available, dress the candles with olive oil while envisioning your love life as you most want it to be.  After twenty minutes, step out of the bath and allow your body to air-dry.  To seal the working, take a cup of bathwater outside and throw it toward the rising sun with a prayer to enhance your romantic connection.

Herbalist and hoodoo scholar Catherine Yronwode notes that some root workers confuse gentian and Sampson snake root.  On her Lucky Mojo site (see sidebar) she advises to ere on the side of caution and, regardless of what root is called for, use gentian for love luck workings and Sampson snake root when working on commanding, protection and/or virility.  Bonne chance ~

Header: Jason and Medea by John William Waterhouse c 1907

Monday, March 19, 2012

Lundi: Recipes

Nellie Melba was an Australian gal with a beautiful voice.  So lovely was her singing that it won her world wide acclaim and a title as well.  Her name is now more familiar to most of us in relation to food rather than opera.  Dame Nellie had two items created for her by famous chef August Escoffier: Melba toast and Peach Melba.  The first were originally twice grilled, thin slices of bread that Nellie took for breakfast in the morning.  The second – quite against the lady’s weight-consciousness – was a decadent desert that is still on the menu at the Savoy Hotel, London, where it was originally created in 1894.

You can buy Melba toast at the store, if you’re so inclined, but you really should make your own Peach Melba.  Here’s how:

2 cups sugar
1 whole vanilla bean
8 medium peaches, peeled and pitted
2 pints frozen raspberries, thawed (or use fresh if available)
Vanilla ice cream
Slivered almonds

In a large saucepan, bring 1 cup of sugar and 2 cups water to a boil, add the vanilla bean and boil until the syrup reaches “thread stage”: 232 degrees on a candy thermometer.  Add the peaches and cook until they are tender and easily pierced with a knife.  This takes about 15 minutes.  Allow this mixture to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, combine raspberries with 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup water in a small saucepan.  Heat over medium high heat until the mixture thickens, about 10 minutes.  Cool this mixture and strain or blend to form a puree.

On eight dishes, put down a scoop of vanilla ice cream and top with a peach.  Drizzle with raspberry puree and a sprinkle of slivered almonds.  Recipe courtesy of The Wild Women Association.  Bon appetite ~

Header: Dame Nellie Melba as Ophelia via the National Archives of Australia

Friday, March 16, 2012

Vendredi: Chthonian Histories

One of the first published authors in western history was a woman who wrote about a woman.  In fact, she may be the first author in the world.  Enheduanna, High Priestess of the moon god Nanna in Ancient Sumer, documented her love for another deity in hymns of praise and apocryphal stories around 2,300 BCE.  Enheduanna’s chosen subject was the greatest goddess in her people’s pantheon.

Known to the Sumerians as Inanna, who ruled for the most part benevolently from her temple in the city of Erech, she would be called by many more names before Rome conquered her people and eradicated her cult.  In Babylon she was Astarte, then in Assyria and Ancient Persia she became Ishtar.  Her name was also memorialized in the Hebrew Bible; the heroine in the Book of Esther bears a Canaanite form of her name.

The most famous story of Inanna, told by Enheduanna in bits and pieces throughout her hymns, is that of her descent to the underworld realm of her fearsome sister, Ereshkigal.  This chthonian history was a mythological device long before the rise of Sumerian civilization, and it became a lynchpin in the all important New Year’s ritual of Sacred Marriage between the living king and a priestess representing Inanna.

According to the story, Inanna married a mortal shepherd, Dumuzi (Tammuz in the mythos of Ishtar), who she raised to the level of king in Erech.  The couple was happy and the land prospered.  As was typical, though, Inanna grew bored and looked around for more worlds to conquer.  She set her heart of the netherworld empire of her older sister Ereshkigal, where a vast horde of gold, silver and jewels was said to be stored.

Though Dumuzi, Inanna’s attendants – including Dumuzi’s sister Geshtinanna – and the god Enki implored Inanna not to pursue such folly, she brushed their good advice aside.  Dressing in her finest linens and jewels, with the crown of Erech on her brow, she went down the perilous stairway to the Underworld.  Her one concession to the potential danger of her undertaking came in the form of instructions, not to her husband, but to her steward, Ninshubur.  She told this demigod that if she was not back within seven days he must petition Enki for her freedom, for she would surely be among the dead.

Inanna’s journey began at the first of seven gates that led to the royal hall of the Queen of the Underworld.  Here the ghastly demons known as galla demanded tribute from the goddess before they would let her pass.  First her jewels, then her gowns and finally, at the seventh gate, her crown went to the monsters until she stood naked before her dolorous sister.

Ereshkigal, insulted by Inanna’s attempt to usurp her power, turned the soul-stealing eyes of the Judges of the Underworld upon her sister.  Inanna promptly dropped dead on the dusty floor of the hall.  Ereshkigal had her body hung from a hook mounted on a tall stake where it could be seen by all who entered her throne room.

Meanwhile, Ninshubur waited the allotted time and, when his mistress did not return, he hurried to the hall of Enki, the Lord of the Waters.  Enki, who was uncle to Inanna and Ereshkigal, descended into the Underworld.  As he was a stronger deity even than the Queen of the Dead, Ereshkigal made no initial protest when he took Inanna’s body down from the stake and revived her with the “water of life”.  But as the god and goddess went to leave, Ereshkigal reminded them that no one who had become one of the dead could permanently return to Earth or even Heaven without supplying a substitute to join the minions of her realm.

With a pledge to do just that, Inanna was allowed to pass through the seven gates where her finery was returned to her.  But a retinue of the galla followed her in their role as harvesters of souls.  They would kill her chosen substitute in the worst possible way, and drag him or her back to the chthonian world of their Queen.

Inanna wandered the land, visiting the gods and goddesses of city after city.  All of them bowed down before the Queen of Heaven and reminded her of good deeds they had done her and gifts they had given her.  Because of their kindnesses, she let them live and moved on finally arriving at her own beloved Erech.

Here, to her great surprise and disgust, she found her beloved husband Dumuzi not in mourning but sitting on her throne.  He made her people his playthings and “left no man his fortune nor no virgin to her father.”   Outraged, Inanna ordered the galla to take her own spouse to the Underworld as her replacement. 

Dumuzi set out into the countryside that he knew well, and for a time found refuge thanks to his father-in-law Utu, Lord of the Sun, but the galla were relentless.  Eventually Inanna’s shepherd-husband was caught by the galla, tortured, killed and dragged off to the Underworld.

The poignant dénouement of the story comes with the self-sacrifice of Inanna’s lady in waiting.  Geshtinanna travelled to the Underworld and offered herself in her brother’s place.  Ereshkigal, impressed with the girl’s courage, cut her a deal.  Dumuzi would stay half the year in the Underworld.  Geshtinanna would replace him the other half not as a pathetic, dust-eating shade but as Ereshkigal’s personal scribe.

In this way the shepherd-lover Dumuzi embodied the fertile months of the year while Geshtinanna became synonymous with winter.  The resulting rite of Sacred Marriage, then, ensured the kings of Sumer, Babylon and Assyria not only personal power, but the fruitfulness of their kingdoms.  And it is thanks in large part to the first author in history, a lady named Enheduanna, that we know what happened when the Queen of Heaven went boldly into the Underworld.

Header: Ishtar in Hades (Inanna before Ereshkigal) by E. Wallcousins

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Jeudi: Root Work

Every once in awhile even the most fortunate among us feel the need for someone or something to keep us safe.  For the most part, this is a psychological condition that is usually manifested by a feeling of anxiety or dread brought on by change.  Being mammals, we’re intimidated by change and we feel the need to put up our guard, so to say. 

Such a situation is tailor made for the kind of working that will result in something we can hold and carry.  At least for me, a pocket piece or mojo bag that I can grip tightly in a moment of worry goes a long way toward helping me stay grounded and face adversity.  Here is my favorite mojo for protection.

1 dime (if the coin is a silver dime – minted before 1947 – so much the better)
1 penny (an “Indian head” penny was originally recommended for this mojo but, as with the dime, a new coin is perfectly serviceable)
1 pinch dried basil
1 pinch dirt from a churchyard (not a graveyard)
1 metal nail
A lock of your hair or your fingernail clippings

Select a square of fabric (flannel is traditional but any natural fabric will do) in a color that best suits your need for safeguarding.  If you are embracing change but anxious to get it over and done, consider black.  Yellow is a good option if you are in the process of healing and looking for renewal.  White is an all-around protective color; red is the most commonly used color of cloth for this mojo as it increases personal strength and power. 

Place all the items listed in the fabric square while envisioning your anxiety and worry slipping away, replaced by an overall feeling of protection.  Bring the corners of your square together and tie up your mojo tightly with ribbon, thread or string.  Dress your mojo bag frequently with a spot of olive oil or, if you have it available, Van Van oil.

Carry this mojo with you as close to your body as possible.  When you feel overwhelmed, hold it in your hand and let it guide you through your anxiety to a state of calm determination.  Bonne chance ~

Header: Our Lady of the Victory of Malaga by Luis Nino c 1740

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Mardi: Herbal-Wise

Skunks don’t live in Alaska but their smell certainly does.  Walk near a stagnant pond on a summer evening and you’ll swear someone just hit a whole herd of skunks with a vehicle.  Up here that disgusting smell doesn’t come from an animal, however, but from a plant.

Skunk cabbage – generously referred to in Pow-Wow as “meadow” cabbage – is in the same herbal family as the truly nauseating asafetida and it quite literally reeks like skunk spray.  It was used by Native Americans in the treatment of asthma and tuberculosis and it is still used by many different magickal disciplines.

In Wicca, a little bit of skunk cabbage is wrapped in fresh bay leaf.  If this is done on Sunday with proper intent Scott Cunningham tells us, and carried as a pocket piece, fortune will always favor the person who made it.

According to Silver RavenWolf, skunk cabbage is used in American Pow-Wow for “legal matters”, although she does not elaborate.  She also mentions mixing the plant with bay for prosperity.

Hoodoo, taking its usual like-makes-like path, employs skunk cabbage to jinx enemies.  A mixture of dried skunk cabbage leaves, licorice root, poppy seeds and calamus root is used as a throw for sprinkling on an enemy’s front porch and walk.  This will bring about illness and misfortune until the root worker removes the trick.  This is a nasty working that I personally have never tried and don’t recommend.  That like-makes-like can come back to bite you in the butt, I find.  Bonne chance ~

Header: Magpie on the Gallows by Pieter Brueghel the Elder c 1568

Monday, March 12, 2012

Lundi: Recipes

It's Spring Break for my kids this week and my husband has a week away from work as well so we are all luxuriating in the wonder of not having any demands on our time.  That is especially welcome since our government continues to force us into a ludicrous and unnecessary time change.  But I digress.

Having the freedom not to show up much of anywhere also means having a choice of morning beverages, if you know what I mean.  With St. Patrick’s Day just on the horizon, I’m thinking of Irish coffee.  Here’s how I throw this oh so easy and delicious concoction together:

8 ounces hot coffee
2 tsps baker’s sugar (granulated is fine, too, or a sugar substitute of your choice)
4 ounces Irish whisky
4 ounces heavy cream

Pour coffee into two 8 ounce cups, add sugar and stir to dissolve.  Add whiskey and stir again.  Pour the cream in slowly over the back of a spoon so that it floats on the top.  Or, if you prefer, a dollop or two of whipped cream is just as good.  Relax and enjoy.

Now, where’s the paper… Bon appetite ~

Header: Confederate Green by Michael Gnatek

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Samedi: The Ghede Revisited

Haiti is rich with dark myths and voodoo legends, including many frightening tales of the evil Ghede.  This lord of the dead is a tall man who wears a long black coat, black top hat, and dark glasses.  He is considered a powerful devil who constantly seeks the ruin of souls.

Ghede stands at the eternal crossroads through which all souls must pass upon death.  He has the power to resurrect the dead and to animate zombies.  One of his most frightening attributes is his ability enternally to torment the souls of corpses stolen by sorcerers.  Haitians believe that only prayer and holy ritual can save them from the clutches of Ghede.  ~ from Encyclopedia of Hell by Miriam Van Scott

First of all: say what!?

Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, let’s break this down a little bit.  In Haitian Voudon and New Orleans voodoo the Ghede (they are generally imagined as a group, not as a single entity) are nothing more frightening than the spirits of the dead.  They are led by a smaller group – usually of three but sometimes as many as seven – of gentlemen known as the Barons.  Baron Samedi is the most familiar and the most often addressed.  His wife is one of the few female Ghede, the powerful Maman Brigitte.  In New Orleans, Baron Samedi is considered the patron lwa of the city and its surrounding bayous.  For an extended but by no means complete list of the well known Haitian Ghede, click here.

There is nothing of the devil or demon in Ghede lore.  In fact the Ghede – though they usually go uninvited – are some of the most welcome guests when spirit possession occurs at the oumphor.  Their hard drinking, sense of humor and honesty are a welcome diversion from the sometimes more difficult lessons brought from Ginen by the lwa.  In fact, the only participant who will have nothing to do with the Ghede is usually a spirit and not a human; the beautiful Erzulie Freda Dahomey cannot abide the Ghede, as they remind her of aging and corruption.  She will complain that they are “chameau”: stinky.

The idea of torment and torture of a soul after death is alien to Haitian Voudon.  In this world view, souls retreat to the underwater haven of Ginen where, if offerings are made to them and they are strong enough to help the living, they might even become lwa themselves.  I won’t even cross the line into corpse thieving or zombies as I have no direct experience with either.  Such things do occur, but it is not the Ghede who are called upon for help with those matters.

In the end, Van Scott’s two paragraphs seem at the very least a misunderstanding of Voudon and voodoo.  At its worst, the entry is a another blatant attempt to demonize the gods/spirits of a religion that does not conform to the Judeo-Christian-Muslim world view.  When I was studying anthropology in school – back in the ‘80s children – we were stringently and frequently reminded that ethnocentrism was the bane of any serious study of man and man’s beliefs.  Van Scott’s book bares a 1998 copyright.  Evidently not everyone got the message.

Header:  Baron Samedi via Deities & Demons (see the sidebar)

Friday, March 9, 2012

Vendredi: Chthonian Histories

The above illustration, from the papyrus scroll known as Ani’s Book of the Dead, illustrates beautifully the modern imagining of the Ancient Egyptian underworld.  In the place where all those who once lived are judged for their actions, known as the Hall of Two Truths, Ani and his wife Tutu approach with reverence on the far left as demigods sit above them to witness the fate of the deceased.  

Ani, who was a scribe in life, next stands before the scales of afterlife judgment.  Ani’s Ba, one of the three “souls” that would survive after the death of his body, perches to the left of the scales in the form of a bird with a human head.  Ani stands facing Anubis, the jackal-headed god of embalming and necroplei who will handle the delicate balance of the scales.  Behind Anubis the ibis-headed Thoth, scribe of the divinities and lord of learning, waits with pen in hand to write down the outcome of the test.  Will Ani’s heart be pure enough to prove lighter than the feather that represents the goddess of truth, Ma’at?  Or will his unjust deeds in life weigh it down?

In fact, the pivotal moment portrayed in this portion of the papyrus is almost more of a dénouement than an all important climax.  To get to this point, Ani – and his faithful wife, a musician in the temple of Amun – had to pass through a seemingly unending series of tests that would make a professional athlete who happened to also be a doctorate student dizzy. 

There were rivers of lava, dark caves and endless wastelands to slog through on the road to face the Lord of the Dead, Osiris.  All that taken into consideration, though, stamina was only half of the equation.  Just as important was being able to answer riddles and knowing names.  An uncountable number of talking objects and body parts would ask Ani if he knew their names.  If he did not, or his answers were incorrect, his journey to the Hall of Two Truths would end, and an everlasting afterlife of wandering, wraithlike and deformed, around the underworld waited.

Spells and amulets, most provided in various versions of the Book of the Dead, could help a soul avoid being disemboweled or having its head cut off.  The answers to the riddles that would be posed to the deceased were also written in the Book.  Whether or not all of these had to be memorized in life or were at hand if the Book was entombed with an individual is still up for debate. 

An example of the kind of quizzing Ani and Tutu could experience went like this:

Upon encountering a door, the lintels on the left and right ask Ani for their names.  He is to respond that they are “scale pan of wine” and “scale pan that carries Ma’at.”  When this correct answer is given, the doorjamb asks if Ani knows its name.  He does, of course: “plummet of the place of truth.”  The questions keep on coming from the door’s bolt, “toe of his mother”, the threshold, “Ox of Geb”, and so on until he passes to the floor beyond.  The floor changes up the line of questioning.  It asks Ani not for its name, but for the name of Ani’s own feet.  (If you’re curious, they turn out to be “who enters before Min” and “wenpet of Nephthys.”)

The final danger – the one that no amount of knowledge and spell casting can help a soul wriggle out of – is Ammut “the devouress of the dead.”  This strange creature, who sits to the right of Thoth in the picture above, is a combination of crocodile, lion (or sometimes leopard) and hippopotamus.  Should Ani’s heart prove heavier than the feather of Ma’at, it will end up in the eager jaws of the demon/goddess Ammut.  This was the worst possible fate for any Ancient Egyptian: total annihilation.

This complex and convoluted maze of travails would lead the happy soul to the its reward: the Field of Rushes.  Here men and women would live simply as agrarians, working part-time for the gods and spending the rest of the afterlife in feasting, music and dance.  A just reward, it seems, for so much trouble.

Header: The Hall of Two Truths from Ani’s Book of the Dead c 1400 BCE

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Jeudi: Great Spirits

In the Slavic mythos there were a sister group of night goddesses known as the “three little Zorya”.  According to ancient folklore they were both the daughters and the caretakers of the sun, and their job was to protect the entire universe from annihilation.

The Zorya were equal partners in caring for and keeping under lock and key a giant, ferocious dog who in some stories is identified with the constellation Ursa Minor.  The dog was kept on a magical chain which could not be allowed to break.  If it did, the dog would destroy everything we currently call “reality”.  In this, the nameless dog is similar to the wolf Frenrir who was the pet of Norse god Loki and would eventually bring about the doom of this age of gods and men.

All three of the Zorya were usually considered virgin goddesses.  This is not surprising given their association with the planet Venus as the morning and evening star.  Zorya Utrennyaya represented the morning; she opened the eastern gates for the sun.  Zorya Vechernyaya stood at the western gates in the evening, allowing the sun to pass into night.  In a mythology reminiscent of the journey of Ancient Egypt’s Ra, the sun would continue to pass through the dark and fall dead at midnight.  There the third Zorya, who did not have a name of her own, would nurse him back to life or, in some stories, give birth to a new sun.  Thus the sun cycle which sustains life on Earth would begin anew each day, as long as that dog stayed chained.

A curious modern addition to the stories of the Zorya comes from author Neil Gaiman.  Gaiman included the three Zorya in his novel American Gods and even gave the midnight goddess a name: Zorya Polunochnaya.  As recently as last year, Gaiman has claimed that he made the third Zorya up specifically for his story, and that in fact there are only two like-named goddesses in Slavic mythology.

This is curious on two levels.  First of all Patricia Monaghan, Ph.D., a pioneer of the women’s spiritual movement, specifically mentions all three of the goddesses in the  entry about the Zorya in her book Goddesses & Heroines.  The book, a definitive study of the mythological female from around the world, was originally published in 1981.  Gaiman’s novel, by contrast, was first published in 2001.

Second, the name “Polunochnaya” sounds oddly similar to another of the Slavic goddesses mentioned by Monaghan: Poldunica the goddess of midday and bringer of death.  Unlike the deadly midnight creatures known in western European mythology, this eastern European goddess takes souls in broad daylight.

In some places, Poldunica is imagined as a young woman dressed in white who floats over fertile fields, killing anyone who touches her hand.  Elsewhere she is elderly and crazy looking, sometimes with the hooves of a horse instead of feet.  In Poland she is tall and carries a scythe to cut down anyone who cannot correctly answer her riddles.  In very cold places, such as Finland and Siberia, kidnapping children is often added to her repertoire.  In all this she seems like an earthbound, avenging relative of the three Zorya, looking after the period most feared by ancient Slavs: the very height of the day when children were kept inside and no work should be attempted.

The mythology of the three Zorya and their death-dealing counterpart Poldunica is well documented, but their use in American Gods brings up a good point.  Folklore and mythology are living forms of storytelling even today that bend and morph with the era just as they always have, and always will.

Header:  The Three Graces by Josephine Wall