Dance of Consolation: Beginnings and Endings

This image of the Hindu god Shiva in the guise of Nataraja (Sanskrit – Lord of the Dance) is familiar to many people. Shiva Nataraja first appeared in 5-6 CE and the freestanding figure about 10 CE. It’s a persona that’s supremely evocative and inspires awe, if not a shiver down the back. I have a little statuette of the Lord of the Dance somewhere in storage, he needs to see the light of day now. My collection of statuettes all have a history behind them. Ganesh, Shiva and Vishnu have found their way to me over the years. I’m waiting on Brahma to grace me with his presence now. They were all bought in a little shop off Baker Street, central London. It was one of many little gems scattered across a busy city centre. The shop had a gorgeous statuette of Shiva carved out of sandalwood, how I wish I’d bought it at the time. It was too large to carry on public transport and getting a taxi home would have been expensive. My regret has lessened over the years. Honest, it has. Now, what of Shiva Nataraja?

As Destroyer, Shiva is one aspect of a divine triad consisting of Brahma, who is Creator and Vishnu, who is Preserver. The dance Shiva performs is called Tandava, and is said to bring about the destruction of the physical world and illusionary concepts of the Self. What is left thereafter but for creation and enlightenment to rise out of this ending?

The ecstatic Cosmic dancer has a smile on his face, perhaps knowing what he’s about to initiate? Symbols and motifs have a habit of perplexing the conscious mind, which act as a portal into the greater expanse of the subconscious. Music and dance are powerful keys to doorways hidden deep within the Soul. The many elements comprising this vision of beauty and luminosity sometimes leave me feeling overwhelmed and mystified. He’s like a book filled with mystical knowledge, unfolding his secrets when the mystic attains further insight. What is he conveying in his ecstasy? What is he conveying is in his pose?

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photo credit: aaRJay fotography Shiva Temple via photopin (license)

The god dances within a circle of flames representing the world of Maya (Illusion) and consciousness, the inner ring symbolises water and the outer is fire. His gestures convey five attributes:

Creation

The upper right hand holds a drum (damaru) representing the sound, a heartbeat, to which Shiva dances in his creation of the world.

Protection

The lowert right hand is held in the abhaya-mudra (what is called the “fear not” gesture, palm facing outward with the fingers pointing up.)  It is a blessing.

 Destruction

This is represented by fire held in the upper left hand (either in a vessel or his hand), symbolising the disintegration of matter. Agni (fire) cleanses and removes the result of destruction at the end of each epoch or Yuga. The lower left hand is in the gahahasta (elephant trunk) pose and points towards the raised left foot, conveying Shiva’s grace.

Embodiment

The right foot is placed upon the demon of ignorance, Apasmara, vanquishing him so that knowledge may flourish.

 Release

The left foot is raised, bestowing eternal bliss, grace and release.

Shiva’s unkempt hair signifies him as an ascetic and houses a crescent moon (the seasons are created through its waxing and waning), a skull, Datura blossom and Ganga, the goddess of the river Ganges. When her presence was needed on Earth Shiva’s hair broke her descent.

There are snakes coiled round Shiva’s upper arms and neck, signifying his power over these creatures. They are also symbolic of reincarnation and regeneration due to the ability to shed their skin.

This is only a brief glimpse into the symbolism of this mighty Lord of the Dance, one would have to meditate upon his nature to gain personal insights. I can’t profess to be a devotee but hold him in great esteem, perhaps my ancestors worshipped him at one time, I hope so. One day I’ll visit Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu, India to visit the great temple complex of Nataraja. Legends tell of Shiva having performed his dance of beginnings and endings in a grove of Tillai trees there. Sacred landscapes are instilled with the essences of divinity, hence one of many reasons pilgrims undertake their journeys to partake of these energies. This is my virtual pilgrimage to pay homage to Shiva in his Nataraja form.

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Guest Post: Lyn Baylis on “Ritual, Death, and Magic”, Part 2

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Chris Brock Photography

Post death

The ancient Egyptians ensured that the body was carefully prepared. Magic and lengthy rituals were essential to prepare each person for their eternal existence. The journey was fraught with perils, and to reach the destination the dead person needed ample provisions, the help of rituals and magic spells. In the end, if everything was done properly, the deceased had an opportunity to become a transfigured spirit, blessed with magical powers and ready to live forever among the gods.

The Egyptian concept of the soul, which may have developed quite early, dictated that there needed to be a preserved body on the earth in order for the soul to have hope of an eternal life. The soul was thought to consist of nine separate parts:

The Khat was the physical body.

The Ka one’s double-form.

The Ba, a human-headed bird aspect which could speed between earth and the heavens.

The Shuyet was the shadow self.

The Akh, the immortal, transformed self.

The Sahu and Sechemaspects of the Akh.

The Ab was the heart, the source of good and evil.

The Ren was one’s secret name.

The Khat needed to exist in order for the Ka and Ba to recognize itself and so the body had to be preserved as intact as possible.

The belief that the spirit of the person never dies but will in time return again to learn the lessons missed until they reach perfection.

(documented by Raymond Moody).

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Image: Foundry, Pixabay

I follow a broadly nature based spirituality and believe that death is not the end of our existence.

That all creatures possess a spirit or soul and that spirit or soul is eternal therefore when the body dies it is only a physical death and our spiritual journey continues.

If we look at nature we can see in all things a cyclic pattern.  It is so, I believe, with our lives.  Many honour this circle of birth, infancy, childhood, youth, maturity and old age. I believe they should also find honour in death, knowing that although the body undergoes physical Transformation, the Spirit remains unchanged.

I understand that those who have no belief in the continuation of the spirit may find death frightening, as the self they know will disappear forever. However, I’m convinced that when the spirit leaves the body it doesn’t necessarily mean that all ties to those left behind are disconnected. I know that Spirits have the power to manifest themselves to us and in some instances they also communicate with us. From my experience, specific Spirits are called upon to provide us with assistance relating to a particular need. They may be from our own family and can come to us during dreams or in visions.

When the individual is dead a light is lit which will represent the deceased person, and be a focus to remind friends and family that the spirit is still there. This soul/spirit requires help to undergo transition, a task usually done by the Elder, Shaman or senior member of the family while preparing, washing and anointing of the body. Incense is used to cleanse and to bring peace and harmony to the place where the body is laid out.

Cleansing and purifying the deceased

On the altar place two earthenware bowls, two flannels, and two towels.

Place to one side a clean winding-sheet or shroud (and coffin).

Have ready a candle, incense, oil – frankincense, (for birth) myrrh (for death), water in a jug, rosemary leaves (antiseptic) or similar sweet-smelling flowers and a piece of Yew.

Explanation of ritual

In this ritual we honour the one who has transcended the mundane and stepped through the threshold of life into the realm of death.  In many spiritual traditions the soul/spirit does not leave the body for three days, in others it stays close to ensure that those left behind can cope.

As guardians of the gateway we seek to ensure that our charge is ready to face the world beyond. Therefore, with full ceremony we wash and dress them as they would wish to be. They may then stand cleansed and pure before their Divine Ones and Ancestors.

The sacred flame has been burning since they died, or if not will be lit at the beginning of the ceremony.   Three drops of the three oils are added to the water in the jug, which is then blessed and poured into the two bowls and the incense is lit.

The clean robe/ sheet is placed next to the body and the following words recited:

“We acknowledge the sacred journey of your life, and wash you so that you may step through the gateway into the next world and face your ancestors and your Gods cleansed and with dignity.”

Take one flannel and start to wash the deceased. Start with the face, and neck, hands and arms and them torso to the waist.  Take the other flannel and start at the feet and wash and dry up the torso, the genital area last.

* If the deceased has been at home and is not suffering from a contagious disease there is no need to take special precautions.  However if the deceased has recently been in hospital it would be appropriate to wear gloves and cover all exposed skin as MRSA lasts up to 8 weeks and is easily transferable and CD lasts even longer.

Then place the right leg over the left leg, turn the deceased gently on the left side and continue as before, top to middle, then feet to middle.  Once you finish washing then place the sheet down the side ready to slide into place.

Take the myrrh (to mark and to honour the completion of life’s journey and the beginnings of a new life). Anoint the chakra points on the body plus the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet, and the lips.  Recite appropriate words, e.g. may these feet that have walked the sacred paths be blessed.

Position the left leg over the right, gently roll to the right and pull out the sheet. When the body has been anointed, fold the blanket right side first. Over the heart place a sprig of rosemary (for remembrance) or similar, then fold in the other side and place a spring of rosemary there. Continue to fold the sheet until it covers the body leaving the face free. Cover it with muslin (if the body is to be there for a few days it may be best to cover with a light blue muslin) until the time comes for the final journey.  Place the body in the coffin or bed, preferably on a hard surface, or board which will be used to carry the body to the final resting place.

Place flowers inside the coffin, or on and around the body – a sprig of yew is also often placed on the body to denote that death is not the end but a beginning and to confirm that like the yew each year the deceased will return anew.

Prayers can then be said to the deity, ancestors, spirits of place or those who watched over the deceased in life to thank them for being with them throughout life and asking that they watch over them as the await transcendence,  renewal or rebirth.  Many will hold a 3 day vigil- singing, talking to the deceased and sharing with family and friends stories of their journey of life, covering the shroud with reminders, or the coffin, with reminders or writing and drawings. (In this way even the children can have a part in making the coffin ready).

At the end of this period the body is taken to its final resting place, and the deity and spirits thanked for their help. Those whose job it was to help the deceased through life will also be thanks and given leave to depart.  If there is to be no vigil this will be done at the end of the washing ceremony.

The body is now ready for the Vigil or the Wake or if none are being held – ready to be placed in their casket for either burial or cremation.

Some Native American tribes still put grave goods and gifts with their deceased as do some Pagans, and other nature based spiritualities. Buddhist monks will chant when preparing the body for the funeral fire. They don’t call it magic but that’s what I would see it as.  The reason for doing this is to help the dead person to be released from their fading personality.

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Image: Pixabay

A third magic is sometimes used to ensure that the spirits of the dead do not come back and haunt us or seek vengeance on those they think are responsible for their death.

Sometimes this third layer of magic is used in conjunction with the other magic. The main reason for using this is to keep the spirits focused on their last journey. This ensures that they pass over without turning back, and that they have nothing which continually calls them back.

Many spiritual traditions believe that if the rituals are not done correctly, the spirit can return to cause mischief. This belief has led some cultures to burn the deceased’s house and all of their possessions. The family would move to a new house in a new location to escape the ghost of the deceased. The Roma also had similar practices with the burning of the caravan. The ancient Egyptians laid curses on the tombs so that the deceased would not be disturbed, and come back to haunt the living.

Our own Anglo-Saxon Ancestors funeral rituals placed grave goods with the departed spirits and these were also protected by curses. A runic inscription found reads:

Ragnhildr placed this stone in memory of Alli the Pale, priest of the sanctuary, honourable þegn of the retinue. Alli’s sons made this monument in memory of their father, and his wife in memory of her husband. And Sóti carved these runes in memory of his lord. Þórr hallow these runes. A warlock be he who damages(?) this stone or drags it (to stand) in memory of another”.

This last sentence puts a curse upon anyone who damages the stone or places it as a monument to another person.

Across the world there is a strong tradition of not speaking the name of a dead person at least until they have departed, as it will keep them bound to us. Photographs or depictions of a person who died may also be seen as a disturbance to their spirit. Often some families will put the photos away or will cover them.  Echoes of this are in the Jewish religion where the mirrors are covered and in our own traditions, made popular in Victorian times, closing the curtains and covering the mirrors. Some African cultures carry the coffin over water so that it cannot return; other take it to a cross-road and turn in around three times so that the spirit won’t be able to find the way home. Our fear of the dead is just as strong in the west but we hide it under a show of sophistication.

We don’t embrace death in our culture and we have so many ways to avoid talking about it.  However, it has been proven in very real terms that a good funeral eases the grief and can bring peace to the family of the departed.

A beautiful ritual as well as bringing peace to the congregation reminds those left behind of the life that was, and it brings hope and even joy to those who remain.  Perhaps this is yet another kind of magic.

 

Guest Post: Lyn Baylis on “Ritual, Death, and Magic”, Part 1

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Chris Brock Photography

My friend Lyn Baylis has kindly consented to writing two further articles shedding light on her work. This subject isn’t always an easy one for people to face but she has written sensitively and compassionately about care of the dying and dead. Without further ado here are her words:

As well as being a Chaplain and Minister, my other duties entail being an End of Life Midwife and Transition guide. This is doing the work of a psychopomp. The primary function of the psychopomp is to help the spirit or soul of an individual cross over to a safe place at the time of death. For many this role is part of who they are and they come to it naturally, others can learn the skill, but it is not as easy as many people will tell you.

Every culture, country, religion, and community has certain behaviours and rituals that govern their actions when a loved one dies. These traditions and death rituals are based upon:

  • Religious and spiritual beliefs
  • whether they believe there is life after death
  • What type of life that is
  • What happens to the body and soul after death
  • The social status of the person who has died
  • The connections between those living and those that have died
  • Beliefs about the human connection with nature
  • Superstitious beliefs about death

Many people believe that the soul/spirit doesn’t leave the body immediately at death and must either be looked after until it is ready to leave, or sent on its way. Many including some Native American tribes believe that the death ritual is part of the magic that helps the deceased to reach the afterlife, and works to protect them once they are there.

We’ve seen that our ancestors placed food, weapons, jewellery, tools, or pots within the burial site for the use of the deceased in his afterlife, so they clearly believed that the comfort of our dead was important.

So where does magic fit in and how much is it necessary for the rituals around death?

 There are three types of magic that occur around the dying and the dead:

  1. Necromancy – cursing to bring to death.
  2. Magic to enable the deceased to leave the body.
  3. Magic to ensure the soul/spirit doesn’t return to haunt us.

Necromancy

Often working with graveyard dust and other symbols of the dead they’re said to create  undeads or phantasmas  (apparitions).  It’s also supposed to attach entities which some people call vampiric magic.

All rituals to cause death, regardless of what people think of them are black magic. There’s one heavy and universal law, you have to pay for your right to use a curse of death, or to work to force the dead to do your will you may pay dearly.

Magic to enable the deceased to leave the body

The second use of Magic is to help the deceased leave their body and start their journey to the next life, the Summerlands, purgatory or to immortality – depending on their beliefs.

Magic to ensure the soul/spirit doesn’t return to haunt us

When we talk about the soul/spirit ordinary language is mostly inadequate. Various ancient spiritual traditions have stories of individuals who have had near-death experiences We can enter this realm through ritual and ceremony by shifting the mindset of the individual. The spirit rises transcending individuality and seeking oneness with the divine or the infinite being.

Once In this state the person no longer dies in fear but reaches a place of peace and love,  where should they wish, they can stay conscious for the journey ahead. The first thing to do is to create a peaceful soothing atmosphere that will trigger all the senses and thus help the dying person and all present to get a sense of and to feel close to the Divine.

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Image: Pixabay

For maximum effect it’s important to work with all the senses:

Sight

Set up an altar/sacred space and arrange spiritually meaningful articles or pictures on it.

Cover unsightly furniture with beautiful cloth.

Arrange for soft lighting or candle light to bring feelings of peace security and safety.

The sight of beauty all around brings solace even to the most troubled mind – working in this area you can see the person start to relax as you transform their space from a hospital/functional space to one that calls to them.

Smell

Use scented candles, incense and oils.

Place fragrant flowers in the room.

All these heighten the senses and bring a higher understanding of the divine within, so as the smoke rises the scent calls to the dying person to rise with it to seek the other world. (Make sure they like the odours selected, and if possible that they have meaning to them).

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Image: Didgeman, Pixabay

Sound

Prayers in keeping with the dying person’s tradition are there to remind them of the love that surrounds them and the infinite love that awaits.

Reading of much loved books or poetry.

Recitation of psalms and reading of scriptures. In Islam the Qur’an is read.

A guided meditation to take the person to the place they wish to be.

Gentle chanting, and soft and evocative vocals.

Other music or sounds that will sooth and inspire.

All these are chosen by the family and the Elder/Shaman whose words call on the old magic; using good memories and words of love to encourage the spirit to transcend the mundane.

Guided by holy words or the love of those who care deeply, they call on the dying person to surrender, so that their pain will end. This enables each person to experience the ecstasy that comes with release from the temporal body and the joy of the peaceful state. (Hearing is the last sense to go and loud, high frequencies may make the person uncomfortable and distressed. So, best avoided).

In this liminal place silence is often more important than sound, so it’s good to remember the value and necessity of simply sitting in silence with the dying person. After having assured them that it’s fine for them to go (an important statement often forgotten), you then allow them to make the journey at their own speed.

Touch 

Water, as in “holy water” or “spirit water” is often sprinkled on the dying person to prepare them for death, in some traditions even a baptism is performed. Oil also is sometimes used to anoint the person and to make them ready for the transition. Some people will at this point close the chakra points along the length of the body, leaving the head chakra open to allow the spirit or soul to escape.  Personally I wait until I am anointing the body after death.

The Sprits of our Ancestors are often called by the Elder or Shaman at the point of death to guide the spirit onward into the continuing journey.

The most important thing to remember is that this time is for the person dying. 

If rituals are created with that in mind, and rooted in love and compassion, then there is no right way or wrong way to do things. Be aware that rituals can bring things to the surface. They may help us see things more clearly as they bring to the fore feelings that’ve have been buried in our unconscious. Be mindful that these may trigger emotional outbursts in friends and relatives.

Part 2 deals with rituals undertaken post death. These will be elaborated upon in the next post. 

 

 

Immortality: The Alchemist’s Daughter Recollects

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Image: Pixabay

Achieving immortality has been an enduring goal for legion upon legion of humans over the centuries. Tomes have been written hinting at the existence of wondrous elixirs and arcane rituals giving/offering the chance of eternal life and youth. To what end we may speculate, perhaps to abate our fear of dying, perhaps to prolong our contemplation of matters philosophical and metaphysical. Ultimately the real reason may only be known to the individual engaged in such a pursuit. Immortality is a fable retold century after century, our passion for it undiminished, our longing unquenched. We are born, live and die, a simplistic viewpoint of our existence on this material plane. Yet, there is so much that lies before us. At what point do we lose our sense of wonder about the Universe and our place in it? Continue reading

Inconsolable: Flight of the Father

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Image: Pixabay

The Alchemist stands in silence, his time has come to pass beyond the Veil. The moment of transfiguration waits. This is the hardest thing yet to face in a life stretching centuries, to leave all that he loves and values in life, his daughter. The child has now become parent to the father. She holds the wisdom bequeathed to their line in a time when only the unknown powers of the world walked as gods. Like the ancient Egyptian god Amun her true self is hidden, as is her name, until now. Amunet, thus is she named after one of the Eight progenitors from Khemenu (named Hermopolis by the Greeks). A place associated with one none other than Djehuty (Thoth). In his mind’s eye he sees Amun in splendid glory, a serpent coiled round the divine sceptre. Strange how all comes back to the beginning, the serpent biting its own tail.

He can feel the change spreading through the cells, one by one they fill with light and purity of being. They speak to each other, communicating the sacred words that will initiate his ‘Coming into Being or Existence.’ They wait on her presence, knowing that she is the catalyst for this transformation. The Alchemist surveys his entire life, from beyond existence in a Universe bereft of all light and sound to the fullness of a life to this moment. The human part of his being is inconsolable at the parting from life and loved ones. It fears the separation, of relinquishing memories that are dear and irreplaceable. Our remembrance of a greater existence is only beneath the surface he thinks, we need only push aside the barriers of our making to drink from this pool. This much he has instilled in Amunet, a worthy student and teacher.

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Image: Pixabay

He senses the Sun lying beneath the horizon, not yet risen, gathering strength. The Light within also waits, gathering strength. Drops of liquid fall into the waters of life, creating ripples that disappear into eternity. Drop by drop the humanity within is absorbed into something, not yet understood and omniscient. Amunet appears, called to perform this sacred ritual only this once until her time comes to undergo this transfiguration. She faces her father in silence and then utters words of power bestowed by the unknown powers residing within. Human and gods integrate and call forth ancient magic rarely revealed. Her breath to his breath. The Light within rises as does the Sun beneath the horizon. The god Khepri makes his ascent into the sky and also in the Alchemist’s heart. They are ‘Coming into Existence.’ Drop by drop the waters of life absorb his essence, expanding and rippling outwards beyond the horizon. She senses his every move, the moment is upon them. Both smile at each other, having knowledge of what lies beyond material manifestation there is no sadness. Such emotion vanishes like mist in the rays of the approaching sunrise. He is risen and light incarnate, it is done.

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Image: Pixabay

A great silence descends upon this place. A memory from the birth of the Universe. Roshanak approaches Amunet and places a hand on her shoulder. Both women gaze at the beauty of the sunrise. This ending is only a new beginning. The serpent biting its own tail. Roshanak hands Amunet a small leather bound notebook, within are the notes of her journey so far and adventures to come. So it continues. Amunet puts on the coat handed to her and then makes her farewell.

Coming into Being: Waiting at the Threshold

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Image: Pixabay

It’s been months seen we last faced each other. No, not quite true. Each morning I greet one aspect of him guarding our porch and again on return in the evening. The statuette sits on the window ledge, as did a previous form, a gentler persona this time. His Nibs (or Anubis) as I affectionately call him, has seen me through calm and turbulent times over the years. I’ve occasionally neglected our association and focussed on other matters. Perhaps I wasn’t ready at those times to see his true message. The gods choose us rather than we choose them. This much I now understand. Continue reading

Orpheus Ascended: Spirit of Memory

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Image: Pixabay

Deep in thought is the green eyed god, brow furrowed and eyes distant. Tormented by past, present and future. Orpheus knows not what path to follow, what choices to make. A decision must be made, his duty, not mine. He called us but denial stares back at us. How we delude ourselves when fate does not comply with our deepest most treasured desire. The same pattern, again and again. His heart still bleeds, still hurts, but wallowing in the swamp of misery and grief serves none. Eurydice is beyond our reach, descended into regions distant and unknowable. She has gained gnosis of a kind that the living cannot, should not be privy to until ready. My sisters and I are Physical Being, Soul and Spirit. The Trinity are we of your Soul oh humanity. The hidden Essence of your very existence. Continue reading

Icarus Reborn

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Image: Pixabay

Dying star, phoenix, what shall we call you? What will you respond to? You who dared to reach the unknowable. For the gods are not kind to those who seek to breach the boundaries placed on high. Humanity should know their place in this world, submit to rule and respect divine law. They are not our words but those of the lawgivers. How fare you Daedalus, witness to such a horror? The young know not what it is to listen to the voice of reason and wisdom. Yet, we feel your pain and sorrow. As such we shall grant regeneration and resurrection for the dying star.

How your face mirrors fear and shock! Dying star you have felt the breath of Helios and succumbed to a fate not wished willingly on anyone. Fire consumes and relents not, charring your wings of feather and paper.  The divinity within slumbers still, not fully awakened, gnosis not yet within grasp. Do not relinquish hope little god. The heavens wait for your ascent, but not before the soul is ready to grasp the wisdom that is awaits you within the wine dark sea.

Death is but the final gateway to Elysium, that much we can promise little god.

See how his eyes close now, finally without fear. He knows what is to come, to be enveloped in the arms of the great sea, mysterious, being both beginning and ending. The sky thunders so, heralding a mystery yet to unfold. Little god, little god, breathe, breathe, the release comes soon. He listens and then surrenders to a greater power. We cut the thread that holds life to fate. We weave the thread that holds life to its fate. It is done and it is beauteous beyond compare. See how his divinity flowers, flows through veins with  life blood. Breath returns, life renews, resurrection is at hand.

Knowing is at hand, glory unfolds before him like a veil of stars adorning the heavens. Ascend into life and the heavens winged one. For both heaven and earth shall rejoice at your emergence into life renewed.

The wine dark sea holds its breath and then offers up its prize. Upon gleaming wings of white, gold and ivory does the little god rise. Great Helios greets his child and adorns the skies with gold in celebration. We fade back into the realm between worlds, waiting.

Rite of Passage: Running with the Storm

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Image: Pixabay

The Elders stand in a semi-circle within the sanctuary. The High Priestess and Shaman stand on either side of the portal and the Summoner in front of it. A storm is brewing in the north, for it is the sky gods who prepare the trials to come for the young initiate warrior. The air is charged with a ferocious energy, it makes the skin tingle with electricity and the heart race with anticipation. The great forest shivers, knowing what is to come. The drums beat out a rhythm that is hypnotic and ancient, the melody of which has come down from the ancestors beyond the stars. It sings of knowledge that is beyond reach of mortals in their unprepared state. ‘Seek, Search’ it chants. Who shall heed this message? Lightning illuminates the gathering for an instance, striking the torch above the portal. It leaps into life as the salamanders gather in their hundreds. Continue reading