Sunday, May 26, 2013

Strophalos of Hekate

Also known as Hekate's Wheel, this symbol of mystery might be seen as a connection to arcane knowledge or the soul's journey through life represented by a serpentine maze; with three main flanges whose fiery center appears to be rotating drawing the psyche forward, it is hard to ignore.

The three main arms of the wheel correspond to Hekate's triple form which resides at the axis of the three ways.  Here she holds dominion over earth, sea, and sky while waiting patiently in her guise as the Light Bearer known as Hekate Phosphoros.

The Strophalos is considered by many as the center of manifestation and according to Isaac Preston Cory's 1836 translation of the Chaldean Oracles;  "The life-producing bosom of Hekate, that Living Flame which clothes itself in Matter to manifest Existence." The disc, when rotated and concentrated upon, can alter one's consciousness allowing visual entry into the liminal state where Hekate dwells.

Used as a focal point in trance-work or ritual and illuminated by the flicker of candlelight I have, over time, found myself drawn deeper into a connection with the powerful 'Keeper of the Keys'.

"I invoke you, beloved Hekate of the Crossroads and the Three Ways
Saffron-cloaked Goddess of the Heavens, the Underworld and the Sea
Tomb-frequenter, mystery-raving with the souls of the dead
Daughter of Perses, Lover of the Wilderness who exults among the deer
Nightgoing One, Protectress of dogs, Unconquerable Queen
Beast-roarer, Dishevelled One of compelling countenance
Tauropolos, Keyholding Mistress of the whole world
Ruler, Nymph, Mountain-wandering Nurturer of youth.
Maiden, I beg you to be present at these sacred rites
Ever with a gladsome heart and ever gracious to the Oxherd."

The Orphic Hymns (1st-3rd c. AD?)
Hymn I: To Hekate
(text: w. Quant Orphei hymni Berlin 1962)

Thursday, May 16, 2013



As a death midwife, death does not frighten me.  As to what happens after death?  this  remains a secret, one that each of us will unlock when our time comes.  Due to my work with the dying I'm interested in what different cultures adhere to surrounding death celebrations, and also what they choose as their final resting place.  

Interment is the most commonly carried out practice world-wide with the disposal of human remains consigned to earth.  But there are other choices available through the other three elements; that of water, fire or air. 

Earth Burial
The most common practice known to Westerners is inhumation, where the body is in direct contact with the earth itself or covered with a shroud. 

With the birth of the funeral industry around the time of the American Civil War, graves were lined with bricks which created a container for the casket.  The late 19th century saw the introduction of concrete burial vaults designed to protect the coffin from the weight of the earth and help maintain the burial property.  Today the average cemetery will not accept a casket or coffin unless it is contained in a burial vault or liner.

With growing popularity of 'Green Burials', most bodies can once again be buried in direct contact with the earth itself, simple and natural.  Green burial, or natural burial, ensure the burial site remains as natural as possible in all respects.  Interment of the bodies can be done in shroud, bio-degradable casket, or a favorite quilt.  No embalming fluid, no concrete vaults are necessary or even allowed.  The funeral industry argues this practice actually being 'green' due, they say, to the pollution of ground water as the body decays; why?  because of the average person's exposure to pharmaceutical drugs throughout their lifetime.  It has even come to the media's attention that prescription drugs that are disposed of via the commode, drain or landfill are also polluting our ground water.  Here's a question...have we become hazardous waste ourselves and what impact does 'pharmaceutical runoff' actually expose us to?

That being said...
Religion, geography, and the social norm influence most burial practices.  Climate and topography can also influence whether the body is buried, exposed to the air, cremated or placed in water.  Social standing can dictate how elaborate the ceremony should be based on a person's caste system or rank.

The Proto-Celts originally developed a culture of cremation and placement in urns.  Called the 'Urnfield culture' it lasted until the start of the Halstaat period; it was after this period  that the Celts slowly began the practice of inhumation also known as full body burial.

Sky Burial
Most common in Tibet where the ground is too rocky for earth interment and wood has always been scarce; the body is many times laid out or dismembered for vultures to consume.  Dissection occurs according to instructions given by a lama or tantric adept which comes from the 12th century treatise commonly known as 'The Tibetan Book of the Dead.'  Considered a gift, relatives of the deceased view this procedure as a 'giving back' to the cycle of all life.

Today with the low cost of fuel, cremation is growing in popularity dictated largely by the  growing  hospitalization of many people in Tibet due to different factors but one being that carrion birds find the smell of bodies exposed to hospital care and procedure distasteful.  As a direct result many vultures are currently driven away or poisoned in order to control their numbers.  Doesn't it seem that the more modern we become the more harm we inflict?

The word funeral comes from the Latin 'funus', a ceremony or ceremonies held in connection with the cremation of a dead person.

Cremation is the use of high-temperature burning, roughly 1800 - 2200 degrees, causing  vaporization and oxidation that reduce animal or human bodies to bones.  Actually, depending on the container in which the body is placed, all that remains are broken skeletal parts which are basic chemical compounds retaining the appearance of dry bone.  Pacemakers are removed prior to cremation as they are apt to explode under extreme heat resulting in damage to the chamber itself.  Cremation is an alternative to interment in a casket holding an intact dead body. Some religions today still prohibit cremation.  

The cremation procedure, for those interested, works this way.  The container holding the body may be made of wood or cardboard, it is placed in the cremation chamber or 'the retort', which is lined with fire brick. The floor of the retort is made from a special compound, resembling stone, that can withstand extreme temperatures. The chamber is closed by hand and switched on, it warms up for a few moments, and when ready, the flame is released and cremation begins.  This stage of the process takes a couple of hours.

Following the incineration process the interior goes through a cool-down of approx. 30 minutes.  The remains are raked out of the chamber and placed in a separate room on a work table.  All metal debris, screws, rods, and even staples from a cardboard container, are removed by the use of a large magnet.  The remains are then placed in a processor with metal blades and the bones are reduced to a coarse sand consistency called 'cremains'.  Some very fine bone dust is also present resembling ash. The final product is placed within a temporary container, box or urn and returned to the family.  Commonly remains are kept, buried in a vault in a cemetery or scattered.

Other cultures around the world, India along Mother Ganges for example, burn bodies along the shore, and dispose of them in the river.

Water Burial
We are all familiar with the term 'Burial at Sea', most times carried out by the crew of a ship.  This form of burial was necessary as the dead could not be preserved long enough to reach their homeland.  However there is a more religious, mystical reason for this form of interment observed by the ancients.  It was their belief that water links the dead to the Immortal Realm.  The deceased were sent off in ships, leaving those behind who prayed to the gods that their loved one or chieftain would safely return to them in another form.  

Some cultures still wrap the body, weigh it down with stones and let it sink to the bottom of the sea or lake.  Others leave their dead on the shore for the tide to claim them.  Many people spread the cremated remains of a family member or friend into the arms of the ocean, life's place of origin.

Whatever we decide to do with our remains when we shuffle off this mortal coil, the idea of returning by way of the elements gives me, at least, a sense of returning home.

(Painting: Death Crowning Innocence by George Frederic Watts).

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Nature - the Gentlest Mother Is

Nature the gentlest mother is,
Impatient of no child,
The feeblest of the waywardest.
Her admonition mild

In forest and the hill
By traveller be heard,
Restraining rampant squirrel
Or too impetuous bird.

How fair her conversation
A summer afternoon,
Her household her assembly;
And when the sun go down,

Her voice among the aisles
Incite the timid prayer
Of the minutest cricket,
The most unworthy flower.

When all the children sleep,
She turns as long away
As will suffice to light her lamps,
Then bending from the sky

With infinite affection
An infiniter care,
Her golden finger on her lip,
Wills silence everywhere.

by Emily Dickinson

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Lusty May

The Beltane Fire Society in Scotland is a charity run by a Board of Volunteers.  Funded entirely by donations through membership, ticket sales and merchandising.

 Their aim was to create a sense of community, an appreciation of the cyclical nature of the seasons and a human connection to the earth.
 An internationally recognized event since 1988, the festival takes place in Arts Complex in Edinburgh every year.

Membership in the Society is gained through participation in either the Beltane or Samhuinn Fire Festivals.   The volunteers who put this extravaganza on have no professional experience in the areas they volunteer in.  The producers draw on the skills within the community and it is in this way the community evolves.
 Besides the two main festivals the Society puts on every year they also hold workshops to help keep membership involved all year-round.

Edinburgh is a favorite city of mine.  I first visited as a teenager and then returned last year.  Booking for the festival takes a lot of planning ahead but it is worth the effort. 
Along with the yearly Edinburgh Military Tattoo which closes with an outrageous firewood display from Edinburgh Castle (pictured below) I find being there for either event to be a life-changing event in many ways.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Aconitum napellus

Common Name: Monkshood
Family: Ranunculaceae
Genus of over 250 species
The name comes from the Greek κόνιτον meaning 'without struggle'.

Perennial: Prefers places with dappled shade.

Location: Mountainous parts throughout Europe and the United States.
Moisture-retentive; prefers well-draining soil; meadow and woodland settings.
Once widespread, now only found in wild places or cultivated.

Appearance: Showy flowers on short-stemmed offshoots from a tall spear and can reach heights upwards of 7ft. The blooms may be white, yellow, pink or purple. The plant gets its name due to the blossom profile resembling a medieval monk's hood. Leaves have five jagged lobes and are deeply toothed. 

In the Garden: As all parts of the plant are poisonous caustion should be observed to never plant it near edibles. Handle with care.

Folk Names: Queen of poisons, aconite, wolf's bane, leopard's bane, women's bane, devil's helmet or blue rocket.  “Plant arsenic.” (name coined by ancient Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder)

Gender: Feminine
Planet: Saturn
Element: Water
Deity: Hekate
Powers: Protection, Invisibility, Deadly

Medieval Use: To poison wolves.

~Magical Connections~
Protection Sachets: especially against vampires and werewolves'.
Invisibility: Seeds wrapped in a lizard's skin and carried secretly.

Deadly Love: A long history with sorcerers & witches using monkshood in potions to create a lover's attraction.  Done in haste or without knowledge this love potion could turn deadly.

Flying Ointment: Mixed with belladonna, rubbed on the thighs would create the sensation of tingling, numbness and it induces hallucinations of flying. Absorbed through skin this poisonous high was a flirtation with death's embrace.

Deity: Aconite was discovered and used by Hekate, beloved goddess of Medea, a sorceress and niece of Circe, who describes her relationship with Hekate as "the goddess who abides in the shrine of my inner hearth – the one I revere most of all the gods." Medea used aconite in potions.

Warning: All 109 species of Aconitum contain the poison acotine.  Highest concentration is found in the root. Eating a leaf, blossom or root is not advised.  Avoid rubbing your eyes after handling the plant.

Symptoms: Acotine can be found in amounts as small as two to four grams of the root or green seedpods as this is the area of the plant where the poison is concentrated.  Symptoms begin as quickly as 10 minutes or up to 4 hours. Vomiting, alternating hot and cold with sweating, frothing, blurred vision and paralysis can ensue.  Death can be quick or agonizingly slow taking as long as one full day.

Homeopathy: The root is now only used for external use, for nerve-related pain, and in homeopathy. It paralyzes nerve centers. Sedative, a painkiller, and anti-fever treatment.

There is no antidote for poisoning.