Category Archives: History

Drops from the Cauldron: On Inspiration and the Myth of Taliesin

Why do fiction writers write? Where do the stories come from?

I expect humans have been telling stories for about as long as we’ve had language. As I first learned from reading Joseph Campbell 1 , stories in the form of myths have always told us who we are, why we’re here, and how the world came to be.

But where does the inspiration for stories come from?

The Bard with the Radiant Brow

A myth I’m particularly fond of provides some answers. It is the tale of Taliesin, a legendary bard of Medieval Wales. His story, Hanes Taliesin , first appears in 16th Century collections of tales. It was later included in Lady Charlotte Guest’s 19th Century version of The Mabinogion 2which you can read at sacred-texts.com.

Here is an edited version of Lady Charlotte’s text:

In times past there lived a man of gentle lineage named Tegid Voeland and his wife, called Ceridwen, who was a sorceress. They had two children, a beautiful daughter named Creirwy, and a son named Morvran ab Tegid, who was the most ill-favoured man in the world. Now Ceridwen thought that he was not likely to be admitted among men of noble birth, by reason of his ugliness, unless he had some exalted merits or knowledge.

So she resolved, according to her arts, to boil a cauldron of Inspiration and Science for her son, that his reception might be honourable because of his knowledge of the mysteries of the future state of the world.

Then she began to boil the cauldron, which from the beginning of its boiling might not cease to boil for a year and a day, until three blessed drops were obtained of the grace of Inspiration.

And she put Gwion Bach (a young boy) to stir the cauldron, and a blind man named Morda to kindle the fire beneath it, and she charged them that they should not suffer it to cease boiling for the space of a year and a day. And she herself, according to the books of the astronomers, and in planetary hours, gathered every day of all charm-bearing herbs.

But one day, towards the end of the year, as Ceridwen was culling plants and making incantations, it chanced that three drops of the charmed liquor flew out of the cauldron and fell upon the thumb of Gwion Bach. And by reason of their great heat he put his thumb to his mouth, and that instant, he foresaw everything that was to come, and perceived that his chief care must be to guard against the wiles of Ceridwen, for vast was her skill. So, in very great fear, he fled towards his own land.

When Ceridwen came in and saw all the toil of the whole year was lost, she went forth after Gwion Bach, running.

He saw her, and changed himself into a hare and fled. But she changed herself into a greyhound and chased him.

He ran towards a river, and became a fish. But she, in the form of an otter, chased him under the water,

He turned himself into a bird. But she, as a hawk, followed him and gave him no rest in the sky.

Just as she was about to stoop upon him, and he was in fear of death, he spied a heap of winnowed wheat on the floor of a barn. He dropped among the wheat and turned himself into one of the grains. But she transformed herself into a high-crested black hen, and went to the wheat and scratched it with her feet, and found him out and swallowed him.

Ceridwen bore him nine months, and when she was delivered of him, she could not find it in her heart to kill him, by reason of his beauty. So she wrapped him in a leather bag, and cast him into the sea.

The story goes on to tell how Gwion Bach was rescued from the sea and, because of the great light he had taken into himself, was named Taliesin (“Radiant Brow.”) And he grew up to become the foremost Bard in land.

Unpacking the Myth

For an in-depth analysis of the myth and its many sources, I highly recommend Taliesin, The Last Celtic Shaman. 3 This wonderful book by scholar John Matthews links the legend to both the Celtic bardic traditions and the worldwide phenomena of shamanism.

But what does the myth have to say to us modern storytellers?. Let me trot out a few ideas…

Inspiration comes from a magical brew produced by a witch (or goddess in some traditions). The brew is intended to provide all knowledge and wisdom to a chosen one. But the drops do not go to the person intended. By accident, a young and lowly servant is gifted with the magic.

You might say inspiration is a gift, unlooked for and unexpected. Storytellers (fiction writers, poets, songwriters) don’t necessarily choose to become storytellers. Rather, this crazy path chooses them. I have heard so many writers say: “I couldn’t do anything else.” Or, again, “The only good reason to become a writer is because you can’t not be a writer.”

Because he now sees visions, the boy knows at once that the sorceress is angry and means him no good. He flees. And because of the magic in those drops, he is now a shapeshifter, able to transform himself into many different creatures.

Just so, storytellers transform themselves into many shapes to imagine their fictions, placing themselves into the heads of their characters, envisioning many points of view.

And what about that ending? The angry goddess swallows the boy in the form of a seed. But that’s not the end. After gestation, the boy is born again, a radiant child that the goddess cannot now bring herself to harm. So she casts him onto the waters (like Moses), where he will be found again, and a grand destiny awaits him.

Who is this Ceridwin anyway? The sorceress, the hag, who might also be called a goddess? I interpret her as Destiny, the imperative that all of us face to follow our Fates. Again, storytellers don’t choose this path, it chooses them. I also think she can be seen as the Great Goddess who both devours us and gives us birth—in other words, the Universe.

Another Story

Some time back, inspiration came to me. The Tale of Taliesin magically merged in my mind with childhood memories, specifically in relation to a young cousin of mine who grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey. I wrote out the story, tinkered with it a bit, and will publish it soon on my Substack.

Three more drops and one more song

But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s a different version of the story, written and performed by my all time favorite Celtic Folk-Rock Band, Emerald Rose.
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1 See especially, The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, (C)1949

2 The Mabinogian Translated by Lady Charlotte Guest. The story of Taliesin is at https://sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/mab/mab32.htm

3 Taliesin, the Last Celtic Shaman by John Matthews. (C)1991, 2002

 

Praise to the Goddess Athene

Okay, recent events have gotten me—and lots of other people—thinking about women. Their place and condition in society, their empowerment or disempowerment.

Being who I am, these pondering led me to think of the Goddess Athene. Because, in the myths that lie at the roots of Western culture, she is the primary figure of a powerful, independent female, complete within herself.

Bust of Athene (picture credit unknown)
Many Aspects

According to the myths, Athene (or Athena) was not born in the normal sense, but sprang fully grown and armored from the forehead of Zeus. She comes into the world strong and compete in herself from the start.

Athene is a multifaceted goddess. As the armor indicates, she is a fighter. But she is also the patroness of artisans and philosophers.

According to the main article on Wikipedia, she was originally the Aegean goddess of the palace and presided over household crafts and protected the king. Hence the appellation “Pallas Athene.” The article goes on to quote Cratylus, a dialogue by Plato, which traces the roots of Athene’s name to the words for mind, intelligence, and divine intelligence.

In Homer’s Iliad, she is of course a fierce goddess of war and allied to the Greeks. In The Odyssey, she serves as guide (tutelary deity) to the hero, Odysseus.

Athena appearing to Odysseus to reveal the island of Ithaca, by Giuseppe Bottani. Source: WikiCommons

Athene was also the patron deity of Athens. A well-known myth relates how she competed with the sea-god Poseidon for that honor. While Poseidon gifted the Athenians with the first horse, Athene won the contest by presenting them with the first domesticated olive tree. (To the ancients, this gift represented not only olives, but oil and hence light for their lamps.)

Things you might not know

A few lesser-known facts about Athene:

  1. You can visit her temple right here in the USA! Nashville, Tennessee has an exact replica of the Parthenon, including a copy of her statue from ancient times
The Parthenon in Nashville, TN
The Parthenon in Nashville. Source https://www.trolleytours.com/nashville/parthenon
Athena Statue in the Parthenon
statue By Photograph by Dean Dixon, Sculpture by Alan LeQuire – Dean Dixon, FAL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15363521

2. The asteroid (or minor planet) Pallas is named for her. First discovered in 1779, Pallas is one of the largest asteroids in the solar system. It is also notable because of its highly eccentric orbit, inclined nearly 35% from the plane of the asteroid belt. (Athene goes her own way, folks.)

3. As Goddess of Wisdom, she is associated with both owls and snakes.

Stela of Athene feeding a snake
Stela of Athene feeding a snake. Currently hanging on my backyard gate. Photo by Jack Massa

4. As noted in Wikipedia,  in contemporary Wicca, Athena is venerated as one aspect of the Great Goddess. Some Wiccans believe that she may bestow the “Owl Gift” (the ability to write and communicate clearly) upon her worshippers.

(Always, I pursue the Owl Gift.)

In Conjurer of Rhodes

I was inspired to write about Athene in the Conjurer of Rhodes series, In both The Lights of Alexandria and The Treasure of the Sun God, she appears as a guide to the protagonist, Korax, inspiring him to heroism and service.

At one point, she counsels him to leave Egypt and return to his home island…

“Go home to Rhodos. Your father still lives, and he needs you. More, your city needs you. When you were struck down, and Anticleia sacrificed her life, it began a chain of events that has brought misfortune to Rhodes. In the old times, priests would have recognized the omens. They would have known that the city was polluted by an undiscovered crime. They would have said the Furies were wreaking vengeance, until atonement was made.” The goddess leaned her head with irony. “Unfortunately, these days there are few with the vision to read the signs, and most people wouldn’t believe them anyway. But I am the protector of free cities. And free cities will not perish so long as they have citizens of wisdom and valor.”

To which I can only say, “So may it be!”

Poem

Here is a praise poem I wrote for Athene some time back…

Athene
Let us now praise glorious Athene
Paradoxical granddaughter of Time
Placid in counsel, fearsome in war
Teacher of reason, patroness of rhyme.

Virgin complete in her Goddess body
She loves philosophers and heroes best
Showed Socrates how to delve for causes
Guided Odysseus home to his rest.

Her house is the paragon of temples
Her gifts are the oil, the lamp and the light
She is the just protector of cities,
The brightness of air, the owl in the night.

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Historic Florida: A Visit to the Belleview Inn

I recently spent a delightful overnight at the historic Belleview Inn. Located in Bellair Florida (north of St Petersburg, south of Clearwater) the Inn has long and fascinating story—riches to more riches to rags to near demolition and then salvation.

The Belleview Inn today
Source: https://www.thebelleviewinn.com/the-belleview-story/ (All photos by Jack except where noted.)

The Inn’s History

Originally built by railroad magnate Henry Plant as a destination resort, the Inn opened in 1897. The railroad ran close to the Inn’s front door and brought tourists from the northern US to Florida’s west coast.

Source: https://thehudsonco.com/news/the-belleview-biltmore

The resort included luxury rooms and boating and swimming in the nearby bay, as well as a swimming pool, golf course, and bicycle track. (In those days, Florida bicyclists needed a track since the roads were mostly unpaved sand.)

This painting by Christopher Still envisions the Inn and grounds in those early, glory days.

Painting by Christopher Still from the Hotel Lobby.

The Inn was purchased from the Plant family in 1920. Expanded to over 400,000 square feet, it remained a popular destination through the 1920s and 30s, Some of the nation’s most famous athletes played on the golf course, including Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones and others.

Source: http://janetsjaunts.com/index.php/2019/10/14/floridas-newly-opened-belleview-inn-built-from-the-storied-bones-of-belleview-hotel/

During World War II, the hotel was requisitioned by the US Army Air Corps to house troops training at nearby airfields.

Postcard from WWII illustrating the resort as a training center.
Source: https://www.thebelleviewinn.com/the-belleview-story/the-history/the-historic-hotel/

After the war, the property was completely restored. It reopened as a hotel in 1947 – this time, under the name of the Belleview-Biltmore Hotel.

Over the years the hotel was again expanded. New wings and extra levels were added, bringing it to over 800,000 SF, when it was said to be the largest occupied wooden structure in the world.

The Inn at its maximum size
https://thehudsonco.com/news/the-belleview-biltmore

Notable guests continued to visit, including politicians, performers, and even Bob Dylan.

Notable guests from the Hotel Museume
Photos of historical guests from the Inn’s Museum room

After celebrating its 100th anniversary in 1997, the property went through a series of ownership changes and failed plans for renovation. With the economic downturn of 2008, the hotel closed. For eight years it sat empty, deteriorating and threatened with demolition. Then, in 2016, a new group formed and made plans to preserve a portion of the inn.

Much of the building was beyond repair and had to be demolished. However, the original central structure was preserved and actually moved to a new location on the property.

How do you move a grand, hundred-year-old pinewood hotel? Check out the video to see. (Source: ABC Action News).

The Belleview Inn Today

Following the moving and reconstruction, the Inn reopened in 2019. Today, it is an historic gem set among condominium towers and two golf courses.

The Inn features over forty guest rooms, an excellent swimming pool with fountains and spa, and wide front and back porches for enjoying the breezes.

Belleview Inn porch

The interior spaces offer exquisite recollections of Florida’s Gilded Age.

Several times a week, a knowledgeable guide provides an hour-long history tour.

To learn more about the Belleview Inn, visit https://www.thebelleviewinn.com/

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Interview with the Sea God

The Treasure of the Sun God is Book 3 of the Conjurer of Rhodes series. In this novel, our hero Korax has returned to his home island of Rhodes after adventures and misadventures in Egypt and the Greek capital at Alexandria.

Though young, Korax is a skilled magician and student of the Mysteries. He wants only a peaceful life as a citizen of Rhodes and son of a merchant family. But times in Rhodes are hard. Bad weather and piracy have combined to decimate the shipping trade. When the loss of two of his familys’ trading ships threatens catastrophe, Korax decides he must invoke Poseidon, the Lord of the Sea, who is known to be sympathetic to the pirates of Crete …

The modern harbor of Rhodes
Harbor of Modern Rhodes Source : https://www.trekearth.com/gallery/Europe/Greece/South_Aegean/Dodekanisos/Rhodes/photo695497.htm
On the evening of a dark moon, Korax walked alone to the end of the mole. He wore a hooded blue cloak trimmed in silver and carried a wineskin and a ceremonial dagger. On his chest was the amulet Miriam had designed.

In the past month, two more cargos from Rhodos had been stolen by pirates. Worse, word reached the town that the family’s vessel, the Melancarmia, had sunk in a storm off Locri. Korax had decided he must speak with the god of the sea.

Behind him, the last remnant of daylight died over the city. All around him surged the gray, unquiet waters. He climbed onto the parapet wall and pulled the stopper from the wineskin.

Whispering words of offering, he poured the wine onto the rocks below.

Returning to the center of the parapet, he drew his dagger and traced a magic circle in the air, an invisible boundary of protection. Next, he drew the sigil of Poseidon, then of Set, the Egyptian god of the abyss.

He spread out his arms and spoke his summons: “Poseidon, son of Kronos, tamer of horses, earth-shaker, lord of the sea, accept my humble offering in peace and deign to speak with me. Arise from your golden palace beneath the waves and come into my presence, mighty lord.”

He waited. After a time, a gust of wind lifted his cloak. The nocturnal sea surrounded him like an enormous living spirit, a god of old and dreadful power.
Image of Poseidon rising from the sea
Poseidon: Source: https://everyfactever.com/facts-about-poseidon/
“Mortal man of Rhodes, I know you. You have sought to pierce my intentions with your tiny mind. Now you would cajole my will with a meager spilling of wine?”

The voice, compounded of wind and wave, reverberated to the bottom of Korax’s soul, where it roused an instinctual terror. Korax lowered his arms, pressed his feet firmly on the rock.

“Mighty Poseidon, I am in truth but a puny mortal, and have no wish to rouse your enmity. I only ask what I can do, what the men of Rhodes can do, to appease your wrath and secure your protection.”

The wind blew harder, salt stinging his eyes.

“Of old, three sons were born to my father Kronos, the devourer of his children. When we gods overthrew Kronos and chained his body to the pillars of the world, we divided his realm into three. Zeus took the sky, Hades the underworld, and the sea became mine to rule. Earth and Olympus, we agreed to hold in joint and equal dominion. But now on earth and sea alike, men disdain my worship. Those who do offer prayers and sacrifices make empty gestures; the awe and fear have dwindled in their hearts. I will not succor them.”

Korax lifted his chin and answered, “It is true that many men have lost their belief in the old gods. But the seafarers of Rhodes still honor you with all due reverence. I have sailed with them, and I know this to be true.”

“I will not debate my whims and actions with you—I am a god! I will make the waves crash and the storms blow as the urges strike me. So it has always been and will always be. As for the sea-wolves, the men of Crete worship me with fitting veneration. I will not scorn their sacrifices, nor will I help the Rhodians destroy them.”

Now the wind was howling. Back along the mole, Korax could see the spume of waves splashing on the rocks. He saw no further point in trying to placate the sea god. He only wished to end the audience and withdraw himself to safety.

“Mighty Poseidon, tamer of horses, earth-shaker, lord of the sea: I thank you for your presence here at the boundary of your realm. To pay you further homage, I will make worthy sacrifice at your temple.”

He bowed low and stayed down. Gradually the wind died away and the powerful immanence dissipated. Korax rose and quelled his fear with long, deliberate breaths.

The sky was starless. Across the harbor, the braziers and lanterns of the city cast the only feeble light. Korax picked his way warily back along the mole, pressed on both sides by the dark and sinister sea, feeling defeated and utterly alone.


Treasure of the Sun Gode

The Treasure of the Sun God is on sale
the week of December 14th for just 99¢.
 

Or you can check out the earlier books in the series here.

An Initiation in Alexandria

This post presents an excerpt from The Lights of Alexandria, Book 2 of the Conjurer of Rhodes series. The story takes place in the city of Alexandria in the Third Century BCE. At that time, Alexandria was a crossroads of learning and culture, a cosmopolitan center such as the world had not seen before.

Ancient Alexandria Image
An artist’s impression of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, built c. 300 – c. 280 BCE and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. (From the computer game Assassin’s Creed Origins) Source https://www.ancient.eu/image/7615/lighthouse-of-alexandria-artists-impression/

Our hero, Korax, is a young Greek from the island of Rhodes. Owing to some careless conjuring, he ended up a slave in Egypt. After two years as a scribe at a temple on the Nile—during which time he gained initiation into the Mysteries—Korax escaped his captivity. Now he has come to Alexandria with the aim of mastering his magical gifts. Using the name Astrametheus, Korax  has applied for membership in a society of scholars and magicians from many lands.

Late one night, they summon him via psychic message…

The mist had cleared from the sky, leaving the moon a golden shield hung on a tapestry of stars. Korax hurried through the dim, deserted streets. He had dressed in a chiton and sandals, wrapped the gray chlamys over his shoulder. He had considered bringing the beaded satchel, but decided not. Instead he had slung on his sword-belt. The streets of Alexandria were patrolled by a watch, but at this late hour, in this part of the town, robbers might be lurking.

As he neared the grounds of the Paneum, he saw that the iron gates stood shut and guarded by two sentries. The men wore black hooded cloaks and carried truncheons.

“Reveal your name and business,” one of the guards ordered.

“I am Astrametheus of Hermopolis. I believe I have been summoned.”

The man nodded. “Surrender your weapon to me.”

Korax removed his sword-belt and handed it to the sentry. The other man pushed the gate open.

Passing inside the wall, Korax was confronted by a figure dressed in a loose white robe and holding a lamp. The person’s face was concealed by a cowl and a mask of hammered gold. From the size and slender shape, Korax guessed it was a woman. She raised a finger to the lips of the mask, commanding him to silence. Then she gestured with the lamp for him to follow.

At first, Korax wondered if his guide might be Miriam. But after a few steps, he concluded not. This person moved with a sinuous confidence, unlike the rather stiff adolescent stride he recalled in the young Jewish woman. Beneath the hem of her robe, small feet appeared, bare on the grass. Korax glimpsed the sparkle of a toe-ring.

They entered the pavilion of Pan and moved through the shadows. Behind the statue of the god, the secret door stood ajar. The guide motioned Korax to enter first. Bent at the waist, he felt his way down the passage. Soon the height increased and he could walk upright. Faint illumination appeared ahead.

The tunnel ended in the great circular chamber at the interior of the stone mound. Moonlight glinted through slanted vents in the distant pinnacle. At the center of the black floor burned a ring of lanterns.

A solemn voice issued from the area of light: “Let the candidate come forward.”

Korax and his guide stepped noiselessly across the chamber. As they approached, he spied perhaps forty persons seated on cushions, each behind a flickering lamp. Twelve of the company sat in an inner circle, the others in a second circle outside the first. All of the figures wore white robes with hoods and gold masks with the same blank, enigmatic expression. A dense cloud of incense floated in the air.

Korax was led to a seat in the center of the concentric circles. His guide repeated her earlier gesture, warning him to silence, then withdrew to take a place at the outer circle. Korax stared at the masks and waited.

For a long time all was quiet.

Korax’s spine grew tense and achy. A tingling crept over the skin of his arms. He took deep breaths to quell his emotion, but the smoky incense made him lightheaded. He could feel the minds behind the blank visages, probing him.

Needles seemed to prickle his nerves. The prickling grew sharper, till tiny worms of flame were crawling all through his body. His limbs trembled. He forced himself to keep still, to stare resolutely.

Abruptly a jolt shuddered through him and the fire vanished. His whole being was enveloped in an aura of peace and relief. A tall person rose from the inner circle. When he spoke, Korax thought he recognized the voice of Krateros.

“My brothers and sisters of the Paths of the Mysteries, this candidate seeks admission to our Society. What is your judgment of his worthiness?”

“He is most worthy,” said a woman’s voice from the outer circle. “He has talent and a brilliant mind.”

“Brilliant yes, but inconstant,” said a deep male voice with an Egyptian accent. “He lacks clarity and depth.”

“He is young,” answered another. “He only needs cultivation.”

“He knows Thoth-Hermes. I sense the god’s influence.”

“Yes, I felt it too. A peculiar paradox: His knowledge is shallow, yet his experience is profound.”

“He is courageous.”

“But also willful and proud.”

“Once he was arrogant, but his soul has been tempered by suffering.”

“He feels the pain of others and knows compassion—rare in one so young.”

“I sense that his spirit is lost. He is not sure what he wants.”

“Surely that is true of us all to some degree.”

“Still, it worries me that his heart is frivolous.”

Knots tightened and re-tightened in Korax’s belly. Their perceptions sliced him apart, he thought, with the cool efficiency of a chef filleting a fish.

“His ability is undeniable, but does he have sufficient dedication?”

“He has promised to serve the gods. That is a worthy ideal.”

“Yes, and he holds to that strongly.”

A hush settled over the enormous chamber. Korax waited nervously, straining to keep still. Finally, the man he believed was Krateros spoke again.

“I thank you all for your assessments. By their tenor, I believe we are agreed to offer this young man membership in our Society. Is there anyone who disagrees?”

Silence.

“So let it be done.”

The masked figures stood all at once. They picked up their lamps and filed after Krateros, who had turned and was pacing across the floor. Korax clambered to his feet, his knees unsteady. His guide appeared beside him and indicated he should follow. They took their place at the rear of the line.

A chant began, rolling in low powerful tones through the long procession. The sound vibrated inside Korax’s head: three lines in some archaic tongue; three more, in another language he did not know; then a third verse in Egyptian:

Light rushes forth
In rays manifesting
From the mind of the One
Beehive Tomb Interior
Interior of an ancient beehive tomb, the inspiration for the fictional interior of the Temple of Pan. Source: https://www.travelblog.org/Photos/9122777

At the edge of the chamber, the procession moved up a curving ramp. It mounted to the first gallery and turned a complete circuit. The chanting never altered as the company filed up the next ramp and around the second gallery.

In all, the magicians ascended seven ramps and circled seven galleries. Each circuit grew shorter, as the walls of the enormous space curved inward toward the summit. At the top of the seventh ramp, Korax followed his guide into a narrow cleft of rock. At one point, the way grew so narrow he had to turn sideways to squeeze through. The chant had ceased, and for an alarming moment he feared he had lost the company. Then he emerged to find his guide awaiting him at the base of a winding stair. They climbed together and walked out onto the roof of the Paneum.

The moon now floated in the west. Stars glinted in the blue vault, seeming to reflect the countless lights of Alexandria that twinkled far below.

The company had formed a single circle within the round parapet. Korax was led to the center, where Krateros, still masked, stood before a plain stone altar. On the stone sat two gold vessels: a bowl full of wine and a platter piled high with cakes.

“Here at the summit of the Temple of Pan,” Krateros said, “we honor and worship all gods and goddesses. Young stranger, known to us as Astrametheus, I bid you welcome.”

“Welcome.” The word echoed around the circle.

The priest lifted the bowl and handed it to Korax.

“I give you wine, the blood of the god who eternally dies and is reborn: Osiris, Adonis, Dionysus. May his sacrifice renew the strength of your blood.”

As Korax tilted the bowl to his lips, the voices repeated the divine names.

“Osiris. Adonis. Dionysus.

Krateros held the gold plate. “I give you bread, the gift of the goddess who eternally sustains all life: Isis, Astarte, Demeter. May the fruits of her body replenish your spirit.”

All in the circle chanted: “Isis. Astarte. Demeter.”

Korax took a morsel and ate it.

Krateros said: “All gods are one. All goddesses are one. All life is one. This is the Mystery of Pan.”

The priest’s hands came up and lifted away his mask. “Now, Astrametheus, it is my privilege to welcome you to our company, the Society of Alexandrian Pan.”

Book cover: The Lights of Alexandria

The Lights of Alexandria, along with the other Conjurer of Rhodes titles, is available on Amazon.

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A Visit to Historic St. Augustine

Since many of us are confined in quarantine these days, I thought a post about someplace beautiful and interesting would be in order. And, of all the places in this crazy world I’ve seen, there isn’t any more beautiful and interesting than St. Augustine, Florida.

Founded in 1565 by a Spanish conquistador, St. Augustine is “the oldest continuously occupied settlement of European origin in the contiguous United States.”  Located on the Atlantic, near the Northeast corner of the State, it is a wonderful place to visit.

Source: Google Maps

What makes St. Augustine fascinating to me is the multiple layers of history. After 200 years of Spanish rule, the town was ceded to the British in 1763, and became a haven for loyalists to the British Crown during the American Revolution. In 1783, ownership passed back to Spain, but only until 1821, when Florida was acquired as a territory by the United States. In the 19th century, residents of the town survived the Seminole Wars and then the US Civil War.

Flagler College and the Lightner Museum

Starting in the 1880s, St. Augustine became a winter haven for wealthy northerners as the Florida East Coast Railway, built by industrialist Henry Flagler, opened the state to tourism. Flagler’s Ponce De Leion Hotel (now Flagler College) is one of several grand buildings from the Gilded Age that you can still visit.

Except where noted, all photos by the author.

Flagler College, formerly the Ponce De Leon Hotel
Flagler College, formerly the Ponce De Leon Hotel

Across the street from Flagler College is another hotel of the era, also built by Flagler and now housing the Lightner Museum of Art.

Lightner Museum
Lightner Museum

The interor courtyard of the Lightner is especially lovely, with its papyrus pond, arcades and gold fish.

Papyrus Courtyard

Arcade

Papyrus Pool Bridge

At the back end of the museum is the reportedly oldest indoor swimming pool in the United States. Now, as you can see, it is a dining room.

Lightner Museum indoor pool

On my visit, I asked an employee “Where’s the water?” She replied: “Wait for the next hurricane.”

The Bridge of Lions and Historic District

Down the street from these fabulous buildings is the Bridge of Lions, which crosses the bay to nearby Anastasia Island. On the docks by the bridge, you can dine at restaurants or take a harbor cruise (in which case you might see dolphins).

Bridge of Lions
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lion_on_SA_Bridge_of_Lions.jpg

North of the bridge is the historic Spanish fort, the Castillo de San Marcos.

Castillo de San Marcos
Source: Castillo_De_San_Marcos_from_the_west,_February_2012.png By Mainstreetmark – I took a picture with my iphonePreviously published: nowhere, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24953822

The north wall of the Castillo de San Marcos. Taken By Victor Patel Source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castillo_de_San_Marcos#/media/File:Castillo_de_San_Marcos.jpg

Across from the fort is part of the historic district dating back to the 1500s. There are narrow brick streets and numerous shops, houses, and courtyards.

Driftwood Horse in yard

 

Courtyard

Bordering the historic district on the North is the site of the original defensive gates. The history of the gates’ preservation and renovations makes an intriguing and amusing story, which we will save for a future post.

Old City Gates

The South side of the historic district is also worth a walking tour, featuring buildings from Victorian times including some that are now inns and B&Bs.

Victorian House

Courtyard

 

View from Balcony

At the southwest edge of the historic district is this lovely inlet:

Inlet

Anastasia Island and the Lighthouse

Finally, if you venture across the Bridge of Lions to the island, you can visit the St. Augustine Lighthouse.

St. Augustine Lighthouse

And if you’re fit enough to climb the spiral stairs to the top, you can enjoy quite a view:

View from the LIghthouse

View from the Lighthouse

More on St. Augustine

Official St. Augustine website: https://citystaug.com/

Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Augustine,_Florida

Vacation and Travel Guide: https://www.oldcity.com/

Till next month, friends, stay safe in there.

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The Mystical Themes of Groundhog Day

Happy February!

The start of this month is marked by many holidays and festivities, depending on what mythology you follow or what country and century you happen to live in.

In Canada and the United States, February 2nd is of course Groundhog Day . If that rodent in Pennsylvania comes out of his hole and sees his shadow, then it’s more Winter for you.

Themes of note: Emerging from the Underworld, seeing our shadows, projecting ahead.

Standing Groundhog
Standing Groundhog By Marumari at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1779877

Some Christian churches celebrate February 2nd as Candlemas (also known as the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ and the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.) The holy day is observed by blessing candles for the year ahead.

Themes: New light for the year ahead; purification.

Source: https://rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2011/12/question-for-our-readers-rorate-masses.html

 

It is believed that the roots of both Groundhog Day and Candlemas go back to earlier times. Way earlier times.

Candlemas has been linked with Lupercalia, a festival of purification held in mid February in ancient Rome.  Lupercalia was also called dies Februatus, after the instruments of purification called februa, which gave February (Februarius) its name. The name Lupercalia, however, likely derives from lupus (wolf) and this suggests association with an even older festival celebrating wild creatures and the worship of nature gods.

Themes: purification, wild nature.

Bronze Wolf's Head
Bronze wolf’s head, 1st century AD. Source; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lupercalia

 

In Celtic countries, meanwhile, February 1st is celebrated as St. Brighid’s Day, which derives from an older pagan holiday known as Imbolc.  This holiday (located midway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox) celebrates the return of the sun with the lengthening of days. The name Imbolc may derive either from “ewes’ milk” or “budding.”

Imbolc is strongly associated with St. Brighid, as it was with her earlier incarnation as a Gaelic Goddess of the same name. To quote the Wikipedia article:

“On Imbolc Eve, Brigid was said to visit virtuous households and bless the inhabitants. As Brigid represented the light half of the year, and the power that will bring people from the dark season of winter into spring, her presence was very important at this time of year.”

Brigid’s Crosses, woven of grass or rushes, were hung over the door to welcome the goddess.

Brighids Cross. By Culnacreann – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3500722

Themes: Spring, light returning from the darkness.

Imbolc is also a sacred holiday in some neopagan traditions. The coming of Spring is seen as the awakening of the Earth, the Great Goddess. Like Brigid, she comes bringing the light. Like the groundhog, she emerges from her sleep in the Underworld.

To summarize the many threads, we have traditions associated with light for the year ahead, purification, reawakening, rebirth.

On a personal level, of course, none of these come without struggle. These are all good ideas to contemplate, as we reflect on the year past and envision the year ahead.

With some of this in mind, I wrote this little poem about the holiday a while back.

Brighid’s Day

Bloody footprints mar the snow,
A crust of fragile glass on the river.
But the sun is lamping our way again;
Milk for the lambs is quickening.

She appears every year around this time
From somewhere in the forest.
Some say there’s a cave at the base of the mountain,
But no one’s ever found it.

Her red hair hangs wild from too much sleep,
Her eyes half-shut, her cheeks silver.
But she’s a strong maiden, straight as a pine:
Her white cape lined in green.

Most who glimpse her through the twilight
Whirl and rush away in fear.
But if you stay and bow as she passes,
Your dreams will be more real this year.

************************************

 

Halloween, Ghosts, and the Honored Dead

This month we celebrate Halloween. Many people will dress up in costumes, go to parties, eat candy. Many also will celebrate the dark, mysterious, and otherwordly.

But what’s it all for? Why do we even have Halloween?

House decorated for Halloween
Photo by Jack Massa

Pagan Roots and Christian Makeover

As you may know, the origins of Halloween trace back to an ancient Celtic holiday called Samhain.  Celebrated around November 1st, Samhain marked the completion of the harvest and the end of summer. It was also considered the boundary between the light half of the year and the dark, when the veil between this world and the Otherworld was thin. Because of this, it was a time for propitiating spirits and honoring the dead.

Newgrange Neolithic Site in Ireland
Newgrange Neolithic Site in Ireland. source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newgrange#/media/File:Newgrange,_Meath.jpg

In Christian times, the pagan festival of Samhain evolved into our Halloween. October 31st became All Hallows Eve, also known as “All Souls Day,” and November 1st, All Hallows Day or All Saints’ Day. These days were dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints, martyrs, and all the faithful departed. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halloween

The Honored Dead

In modern Wiccan traditions, Samhain is often considered the most sacred holiday. in the wheel of the year. It is a time both to mark the turning of the year and to honor our ancestors.

Many believe that our ancestors bequeathed to us more than the DNA residing in our physical bodies. There is a growing body of scientific belief (albeit controversial) that emotions and experiences can be passed down to us from our forebears. For an introduction to this topic, see this Wikipedia article on transgenerational trauma.

In any case, we can say with certainty that we are here because of the lives our ancestors lived. And, to some degree at least, their lives shaped us. If, like me, you are of a poetic turn of mind, you might even say that the spirits of our ancestors dwell in the depths of our psyches, and that they may continue to influence us in ways we are hardly aware of.

Halloween Fountain
Photo by Jack Massa

So in your celebrations this month, you might want to remember your honored dead, and contemplate how their legacies have resulted in who you are now, and how they might be influencing you still.

Abby Renshaw Meets her Dad

As a fictional illustration, here is a scene from Ghosts of Bliss Bayou. Late in the story, Abby Renshaw is undergoing a series of rituals to gain magical power. To make room for the infusions of energy, these rites require her to release her complexes and fears, which are obstacles to growth.

Here, in a psychic vision, Abby encounters the ghost of her father, who self-destructed and died when Abby was a young child.

After a while, I don’t know how long, I’m back in front of the gray fountain, leaning on my hands and knees. I stand up. Annie is gone, replaced by…

I suck in my breath. I can’t believe it.

“Dad…Daddy!”

The luminous gray ghost of my father stands before me—wide shouldered, curly haired, and with a worn, sad face.

“Hello, baby.”

I want to hug him, but I’m afraid he’ll vanish into nothing. Like when he died.

“Dad. I’ve missed you so much.” I’m on the verge of sobbing, and so is he.

“I know, Abby. I’m so sorry. I screwed up.”

“Why did you leave us?”

“Because I was weak. I couldn’t face living. Living is hard…but it’s even harder to be dead and have so much regret.”

I stare at him, trying not to cry.

“I know I can’t make it up to you,” he says. “But I want to give you what little help I can. It’s only this: don’t run away, like I did. Once you start running away, it gets harder and harder not to run. Pretty soon, running away becomes who you are.”

As I listen to this, I realize how desperately I’ve wanted to run away these past two days, ever since Grandma fell. I didn’t let myself think about it much, but now I do. I could call Mom tomorrow, get her to book me a flight. Leave all the terror behind. It might work…or I might go completely insane.

But there’s another way out. I could just give up, let Raspis have his way, drown myself in Bliss Bayou. The temptation is surprisingly strong—pain for a few minutes, then peace forever. Living is hard.

But it’s even harder to be dead and have so much regret.

“I understand, Dad.”

“One other thing,” he says. “Be kind to your mother. She’s a good, strong person, much better than I was. You’re sensitive like me, but you have her strength. You must thank her for that and not resent what she is.”

He’s right again. I have resented Mom for being so tough and driven, for caring more about her career than me, for leaving my senior year to go to England. I need to let that go.

“Abby,” Dad says. “I love you. It would mean so much if you could forgive me.”

I see a tear sliding down his cheek. “Yes, Daddy, I forgive you. I love you too.”

The ghost of my father steps close and wraps his arms around me. He does not feel like a ghost at all, but a solid, living man—the one I’ve loved and missed for so long.

I clutch him, shaking, until I lose all track of time, of who and where I am.

When awareness comes back, I’m lying on the floor in my bedroom. The candle and incense have gone out. My face is wet from crying.

In Abby’s case, meeting the ghost of her father helps her face her fears in preparation for the trials to come. And forgiving her father unblocks psychic energy to free her inner power.

Happy Halloween, Blessed Samhain, and may all your ghostly encounters be good ones.

You can find Ghosts of Bliss Bayou on Amazon hereOr check out Abby’s latest adventure, Ghosts of Lock Tower.

A Visit to Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp

In Ghosts of Bliss Bayou, the first book of the Abby Renshaw adventures, Abby is a high school student troubled by nightmares and scary hallucinations.

Trying to figure out the source of these apparitions, Abby visits her grandmother in the small town of Harmony Springs, Florida. There, Abby discovers a history of occult happenings and learns that the town was founded in the late 1800s by spiritualists, including one of her ancestors.

The idea of a small town in rural Florida founded by 19th Century spiritualists came to me after reading about Cassadaga which is—you guessed it—a small town in rural Florida founded by 19th Century spiritualists.

Cassadaga Today

Cassadaga is still a spiritualist center, and visitors are welcome. I toured the place with my wife a year ago, and we had a wonderful time.

The entrance to the camp is located on County Road 4139 not far from DeLand, Florida (in between Orlando and Jacksonville).

Entrance to the Camp
Entrance to the camp. Source: GoogleMaps.

The hotel and visitor center stand on one side of the street. On the other side are shops and psychics offering readings. These are “not affiliated with the spiritualist camp.” Everyone wants to be clear about this.

The Cassadaga Hotel  dates to the 1920s. In addition to hotel rooms, they offer psychic readings and healing sessions. The restaurant is called, oddly enough,“Sinatra’s.” The food on our visit was excellent and the atmosphere was atmospheric.

Sinatra's
Dining room of the Casadaga Hotel.

Lecture

The visitor center has a bookstore and a meeting hall. Here you can attend classes and schedule sessions with mediums and healers. We signed up for a introductory lecture and walking tour.

The lecture was given by a young woman who identified herself as “a first level student of the camp.” She used a slide show and talked for twenty minutes about the history of spiritualism in the 19th Century. She touched on Andrew Jackson Davis, the Fox Sisters,  and George Colby, the man responsible for founding Cassadaga. You can read about Colby and the founding of the camp on their official website, here.

Our lecturer also described the philosophy and belief system of spiritualism as it is still practiced in Cassadaga. She said there was an active portal right in the corner of the lecture hall where a boy and girl spirit came through. She had not met the girl but had met the boy many times.

Walking Tour

Following the lecture, our guide led us outside. As we walked down the road, she talked about the hotel and the different houses and their history.

House in Cassadaga
Houses in Cassadaga

This tree outside one of the houses was carved in memory of a child of one of the original families.

Tree Carving
Tree carved with angel and child

Seances, we learned, were often held in attics. There were special windows built into the houses to allow the spirits to come and go.

Spirit Window
Spirit Window in attic

The tour ended at the temple, which our guide unlocked for us. It is a large auditorium with a stage and interesting pictures along the walls. They hold services here every Sunday.

temple interior
Interior of the Spiritualist Temple

The Fairy Garden

The tour guide also pointed out the Fairy Garden, which had an entrance up the hill and borders a forest. Following the tour, my wife and I walked up there. The energy was somewhat spooky. People had left all sorts of statues, chairs, and shiny baubles.

Fairy Garden
Offerings in the Fairy Garden

We walked in a ways and then felt we should not go farther.

Edge of the Fairy Garden
As far as we went.

Conclusion

If you enjoy off-the-beaten track destinations, and are looking for a little adventure, I can definitely recommend a visit to Cassadaga, Florida.

You can learn more about the Abby Renshaw adventures here.

All the Sorrows of the World

Content Warning: Magical Philosophy

I’m very happy to report that I am finally nearing the completion of the third of the Abby Renshaw Adventures, which will be titled Ghosts of Lock Tower. This book’s been over a year in the making and was originally planned as a novella. It took on a life of its own, as stories often do.

Bok Tower, a real building in central Florida on which the fictional Lock Tower is based.

This month’s post is inspired by a phrase that appears in the novel. Midway through the story, something terrible happens. Abby, our protagonist, is devastated by horror and grief. She is also racked by guilt. She had a premonition something bad was going to happen, and feels she should have found a way to prevent it, or at least to warn someone.

Kevin, one of her mentors and an initiate of the same magical order as Abby, tells her this:

“You had a vision, Abby. But you didn’t have enough information to act on it. Or the power to stop what happened. I understand how you feel. But there’s a lesson in the Circle of Harmony that says ‘you can’t carry all the sorrows of the world.’ A true magician is prone to see many things. Sometimes that can include terrible evil. You cannot let yourself be crushed by it—not if you want to keep any hope of doing good.”

 

When I wrote that speech, the phrase carry all the sorrows of the world strongly resonated with me. I was dimly aware that it’s source was something I had read years ago, in Israel Regardie’s The Golden Dawn.

As you may know, the Golden Dawn was a magical society of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Its members included prominent occultists A.E. Waite, Dion Fortune, and Paul Foster Case, as well as artists, authors, and poets, such as Arthur Conan Doyle and W.B. Yeats. (See this article on Wikipedia for more.)  The Circle of Harmony, the secret magical society in the Abby Renshaw stories, is loosely based on the Golden Dawn.

As revealed by Regardie’s book, initiates in the Golden Dawn advanced through a series of grades. Each advancement was marked by a ritual, in which the candidate was given new knowledge. The system of grades and the paths of advancement had correspondences both to the Qabala and the Tarot.

In some rituals, paths would be shown to the candidate but were not yet “open”—until the candidate had attained a higher grade. This was the case with the particular ritual I remembered. The path in question is named for the Hebrew Letter Mem, and corresponds to the Tarot Card, The Hanged Man. It is a path of sacrifice.

Image of the Hanged Man; By Pamela Coleman Smith – a 1909 card scanned by Holly Voley (http://home.comcast.net/~vilex/) for the public domain, and retrieved from http://www.sacred-texts.com/tarot (see note on that page regarding source of images)., PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17299698

In this ritual, the candidate is told:

“The Portal of Mem is barred. Yet it is well to be willing for the Sacrifice itself, is as yet, not fully prepared. For in the Path of Mem rules the Hanged Man, the power of the Great Waters. Can your tears prevail against the Tide of the Sea, your might against the waves of the storm, your love against the sorrows of all the world?”

From The Golden Dawn, as revealed by Israel Regardie, Llewellyn Publications, 1990,  page 212).

 

Surely, in the way of poetry, there are many meanings we could unwrap here. To me, an important one is this: No matter how awful the evil we witness in the world (and these days, if your eyes are open at all, you’re witnessing plenty), we must not let it destroy us.

As Kevin tells Abby, we are not required to carry all the sorrows of the world. We are only required to do the good that we can.

I think this quote from the Talmud gives the same message:

Internet meme, source: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/3b/ce/44/3bce445d6f971d4ff592b27cea1f32c0.jpg

At least, that’s how I see it.

*******************************************

Ghosts of Lock Tower is scheduled for publication Summer of 2019

Meantime, you can check out the first two Abby Renshaw adventures here.