Category Archives: Myths and Magic

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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Invoking Dionysus: An Excerpt from The Mazes of Magic

This month’s featured title is The Mazes of Magic, Book 1 of the Conjurer of Rhodes series.

The Mazes of Magic cover
The Mazes of Magic is available on Amazon.

The stories are set in the 3rd Century BCE—the Age of the Seven Wonders of the World—in Egypt and the Aegean. In Book 1, Korax, a young man from the island of Rhodes, finds himself a slave in Egypt. His memory is in fragments, but as the story unfolds more memories return.

In this excerpt, told in flashback, he recalls his first unwise experiment with conjuring …

Invoking Dionysus

Korax stood at the window of his bed chamber, staring down at the dark city.

A long line of torches pierced the blackness, winding up the streets in silence. Tonight was the eve of the Dionysia, the Bringing In of the god. By custom, the young men of Rhodos carried the god from his temple in the harbor district up the wide hill to the theater. There Dionysus would be installed in a shrine to watch the plays and performances and preside over the revels.

Korax watched in reverent quiet as the procession passed below his window. Young men in satyr masks carried torches to light the way. Priests clad in red and purple robes walked behind, swinging censers smoking with incense. Three other priests held the tethers of black goats, to be sacrificed at the end of the procession. Next, amid a blaze of torchlight, youths in masks of horse and mule pulled the sacred cart, overflowing with grapevines and blossoms. Within the cart rode the statue of Dionysus, the graceful, long-haired god, dressed in a panther-skin and holding his vine-wrapped wand.

Procession for Dionysus
A Procession for Dionysus, source: https://apolloandartemis.blog/2018/05/16/the-city-dionysia-and-greek-tragedy/

In past years Korax, lover of plays and aspiring poet, had walked in the torchlight procession. But tonight he waited until the last marchers had passed, then quietly closed his shutters. Tonight he had a private appointment with the god.

Korax left a lamp burning on his bedside table. He lay down but did not sleep. All of his plans and preparations were complete. He only had to wait and gather his courage.

In an hour midway between dusk and dawn, when he was certain all others in the house were asleep, Korax crept from his bed. He picked up the lamp and noiselessly opened the door of his chamber.

He stepped down the passageway, past his father’s room. There the hallway opened onto a gallery overlooking the courtyard. The waxing moon of Dionysus rode high in the west, silvery light glinting on roof and vine. But ahead the passage was walled again, and Korax crept with the utmost care past his mother’s door. He turned the corner into the women’s quarters, where the female servants slept and did their weaving and mending. At the end of this hall, he paused before a thick, black door. He pushed it open cautiously, wincing as it creaked on its hinges. He glanced anxiously behind him, then slipped inside.

The chamber was large, with high rafters opening to the eaves of a slanted roof. It was built to be a weaving room, but Korax’s mother had long ago claimed it as her private domain.

When Korax was a young child, his mother had slept in this chamber, and he in a small bed in the corner. His earliest memories were of playing here as a babe, of watching his mother at her loom. Until age six, he had also witnessed the magic rites she performed here, often in the company of handmaids who had accompanied her from Thrace. Korax had gazed with fascination as his mother wielded a crooked wand or a bronze dagger glittering in the firelight. He had listened, entranced, as the women invoked the Great Goddess with sonorous Thracian chants that he only half-understood.

When Korax had reached school age, he had been moved to his present bedroom, at the opposite end of the house. It had felt like an exile, and he had trouble sleeping for many nights.

But within half a year, he had found his way back to the mysterious realm of the witches. The family sometimes slept on the roof in the heat of the summer. Korax discovered a loose slat where the flat roof that covered most of the house bordered on the sloping roof above his mother’s chamber. Thereafter, on nights of new and full moons, he would often sneak from his bed and climb the ladder to the roof. Removing the loose slat, he would watch unobserved from his high vantage point as Anticleia and her maids performed the rites of Hecate.

Korax remembered enough from those spying missions to know how to conjure a spirit or god—or so he believed. But first he needed to borrow a few of his mother’s instruments.

A small altar covered in black cloth stood against the far wall. There he found the serpent-handled knife, laid before the gold statue of Hecate and the smaller, wooden figures that represented Anticleia’s ancestors and household deities. Searching through casks and baskets nearby, Korax took scented candles and a cake of incense.

He left the black door ajar and hurried, quietly as he could, back down the passageway. The blood was thumping in his ears by the time he reached his own door.

His writing table, set before the open window, would serve as the altar. He had already laid it out with ivy, the vine sacred to Dionysus. Now he lit two candles from the flame of his oil lamp and set them on the table’s edge.

From a storeroom downstairs he had taken a brass brazier, the size of a large wine bowl. This he lined with a layer of charcoal, then lit it from one of the candles. Now three fires were burning.

On a chest nearby, a thrush fluttered in its tiny wicker cage, wakened by the shuddering light. Korax had purchased the bird from a stall outside the Temple of Dionysus and smuggled it into the house under his cloak.

Korax paused to calm his mind. What he was about to attempt was dangerous, some might even say blasphemous. He wondered, after all, if he should stop. But then he felt the sore place in his jaw, and remembered the cause of that injury. He thought of all the times he had been hurt and humiliated by Patrollos and others like him.

With a trembling hand, Korax reached for an incense cake. When he dropped it into the brazier, the flames shot up a brilliant orange and spat a gout of perfumed smoke.

“If fiery destruction be the fate of Korax, son of Leontes,” he whispered to himself, “then at least he will singe a few enemies before he burns.”

Not a bad conceit, he thought, as he picked up the dagger.

Outside the window, Rhodos lay quiet in the glimmering moonlight—the city asleep, all unaware of Korax and his magic. He traced in the air symbols of invocation he had watched his mother use. Then he spoke the words he had prepared, pitching his voice at a low murmur so as not to waken the household.

“I call upon you, Dionysus, lord of many voices, patron of players and poets, god of the wild places and the wild heart. I, Korax, son of Anticleia of the Thracian tribes, child of the witches of Hecate, summon you now in all your power and might to come before me. By flame and smoke, I conjure you to appear.”

His hand shook as he put down the dagger. The fire in the brazier sputtered and writhed, seeming to glow brighter, to blaze with the very presence of the god. Korax stared entranced, and for several moments forgot what he intended to do.

Then he remembered the singing contest at the Guild of Aphrodite. Patrollos and his friends would be there to try to win the prize.

And Korax would be waiting for them.

He steadied himself and reached for the birdcage. Opening the top, he grasped the thrush tightly and pulled it out. Gritting his teeth, he held the fluttering, struggling body close to the fire as he picked up the knife.

“I entreat you, Dionysus, to bend your power to my will. Inspire me with your brilliant music and fill my heart with poetry. But discomfit my enemies. Reduce their songs to foolish babble. Stitch their tongues inside their mouths and bind their wits like the hooves of fatted lambs. Rain laughter and derision on their efforts and bring them only shame. Thus I conjure you, Dionysus, god of poets and players, lord of many voices: Do thou as I will!”

Gripped by a fearful ecstasy, Korax lay the bird on the table and cut off its head with a stroke. Blood spurted, and he squeezed the quivering body in his fingers and poured the blood into the fire.

Dionysus Riding a Panther
Dionysus Riding Panther. Source: https://www.theoi.com/Olympios/Dionysos.html

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You can learn more about the Conjurer of Rhodes stories here.

Or find The Mazes of Magic on Amazon here.

Magic Systems and the World of Glimnodd

To start off this post with a picture, here is the new cover for Cloak of the Two Winds, Book 1 of the Glimnodd Cycle.

Cloak of the Two Winds New Cover

I’m excited to announce I will be re-releasing this series over the next couple of months AND publishing Book 3, Tournament of Witches.

To mark the occasion, let’s talk about magic systems in fantasy and in the Glimnodd books in particular.

I think a lot about magic in fiction (and also in real life for that matter). For fantasy, I find constructing magic systems to be one of the most interesting points of world-building.

But how do you build a fictional magic system that readers will understand and love?

Brandon Sanderson’s First Law of Magic

For many, a cogent answer to this question begins with author Brandon Sanderson’s famous Three Laws of Magic. As presented by the author in a series of blog posts beginning here, these laws are:

  1. First Law: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.
  2. Second Law : Limitations > Power (For story purposes, limitations on the magic are more important than the magic powers.)
  3. Third Law: Expand what you already have before you add something new.

Now, as author Max Florschutz points out in a blog post here , these laws are not so much about creating magic systems as rules for how best to use magic in a story.

Nevertheless, when you invent a magic system as an author, you need to be aware of the First Law in particular. In other words, you have to figure out how to make the magic comprehensible to the reader.

Hard, Soft, and In Between

In his essay on the first law, Sanderson elucidates with examples of different magic systems on a continuum from “soft” to “hard”:

On one side of the continuum, we have books where the magic is included in order to establish a sense of wonder and give the setting a fantastical feel. Books that focus on this use of magic tend to want to indicate that men are a small, small part of the eternal and mystical workings of the universe. This gives the reader a sense of tension as they’re never certain what dangers—or wonders—the characters will encounter. Indeed, the characters themselves never truly know what can happen and what can’t. … I call this a “Soft Magic” system…

Sanderson cites Tolkien as a prime example. In The Lord of the Rings, the rules of the magic are never much explained. By the same token, while magic creates the dangerous situation (the Lord of Mordor and his rings), magic is seldom if ever used to solve the characters’ problems. Frodo and Sam don’t magically teleport to Mordor to drop off the One Ring.

Illustration from Lord of the Rings
Illustration from The Fellowship of the Ring. Source: https://www.theonering.net/torwp/2019/02/13/105874-free-lord-of-the-rings-art-show-in-san-jose-ca/

On the other end of the continuum is “hard magic,” where the working rules are explicitly explained:

The magic itself is a character, and by showing off its laws and rules, the author is able to provide twists, worldbuilding, and characterization.

If the reader understands how the magic works, then you can use the magic (or, rather, the characters using the magic) to solve problems. In this case, it’s not the magic mystically making everything better. Instead, it’s the characters’ wit and experience that solves the problems. Magic becomes another tool—and, like any other tool, its careful application can enhance the character and the plot.

Taken to its extreme, hard magic systems can be like table-top gaming, where specific powers are based on point-systems. Many readers want this kind of hard-and-fast rules-based world, but I personally find hard systems less than appealing. If everything is known, where is the sense of wonder?

Fortunately, as Sanderson points out, most writers choose a middle ground between the hard and soft extremes. He cites the Harry Potter novels as a prime example.

Each of these books outlines various rules, laws, and ideas for the magic of the world. And, in that given book, those laws are rarely violated, and often they are important to the workings of the book’s climax. However, if you look at the setting as a whole, you don’t really ever understand the capabilities of magic.

This strategy allows characters to solve problems with magic while avoiding the trap of the magic becoming a predictable, rote system and thereby losing all the mystery and wonder.

Harry Potter artwork
Artwork for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix DVD, source: https://goldendiscs.ie/products/harry-potter-and-the-order-of-the-phoenix-david-yates-1

Magic in the World of Glimnodd

I am big on mystery and the mystical sense of wonder. Nevertheless, magic is integral to the plot of my fantasy stories. Which means my characters often solve problems with magic. Which means the reader has to have a sense of the limits and the rules. So my stories fall somewhere in the middle of the hard-soft spectrum.

In the Glimnodd Cycle, magic is definitely and consistently a deep aspect of the story lines. On Glimnodd, magic has been around for a long, long time. So much so, that the unrestrained use of magic caused the fabric of reality to fray and the world to change. This brought about a time known as The Age of the World’s Madness, where chaos reigned, new sentient species arose, and one of the three moons flew off into space.

Later, balance was restored. To preserve the balance and vent off excess magical energies, great spells were woven. One causes the seas of Glimnodd to shine with a perpetual light. The second causes magic winds to blow which change the seas to ice or the ice back to soft water.

Icy seas on Glimnodd

There are multiple magical systems mentioned in the stories. In terms of magic used to solve plot problems, there are touches of shamanic magic, alchemy, and ancient evil sorcery (with clearly defined rules in A Mirror Against All Mishap).

But the most detailed magical system is that codified and used by the Witches of Larthang. This is based on five arts.

The Five Revered Arts

The Five Revered Arts of Larthangan Witchery are:

  1. Deep Seeing (wei shen) – The art of perceiving thoughts, images, and events through no physical sense but through the mind alone.
  2. Formulation (jai-dah or “weaving”). The creation of mental constructs that are stored and then released at a chosen moment, through incantation and mental casting.
  3. Trinketing (barang-xing). The fabrication of magical objects. In this art, the witch generates a magical design and binds it to a material object, allowing the power to be unleashed at a later time by herself or another person.
  4. Magical combat (weng lei). In this art, a witch trains with dagger, sword, ritual stances, and fighting techniques. With the force of her mind she can send blades through the air or cast weakness into an opponent’s body.
  5. Pure-shaping (quon-xing). The spontaneous use of mental power to create effects in the world.

In terms of their limitations, all five arts depend on the practiced skill and mental strength of the practitioner (the witch or ‘deepshaper’). In scenes where magic is used to solve problems, there is always a sense of struggle, tension, and doubt.

For further reading …

To learn more about Brandon Sanderson’s work, check out brandonsanderson.com.

You can read his posts on the Three Laws of Magic here:

  1. First Law
  2. Second Law
  3. Third Law

To learn more about the magic of Glimnodd, check out these pages:

Or you can pick up Book 1, Cloak of the Two Winds on Amazon.

Or… Sign up here for our Triskelist Newsletter and receive “Street Sorceress,” a short story that takes place prior to the events of Cloak.

Street Sorceress Cover

Use this link to get the free story.

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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.

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Origins of the Frog Monster

As guest author at a book club meeting recently, I was asked about the egregore, a figure in my latest novel Ghosts of Lock Tower. In the story, the egregore is a thought-form, a monster that originates as an internet meme but soon takes on a life of its own.

Ghosts of Lock Tower
Ghosts of Lock Tower is available on Amazon.

As I explained to the book club, as much as possible in my fiction, I like to base magical content on the real thing—that is, magic as it is actually believed in and practiced in our world. I have researched this quite a bit, and both historical and modern occult practices are represented in Lock Tower.

Two Schools of Magic

The protagonist, Abby Renshaw, is an initiate of the Circle of Harmony, a magical order loosely based on the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Founded in the late 19th Century, the Golden Dawn became a wellspring of modern occultism, and there are still Golden Dawn groups practicing today.

Perhaps the best-known book on the Golden Dawn, by Israel Regardie

During the story Abby encounters another tradition, called “Postmodern Magic,” which is (again, loosely) based on contemporary occult practices grouped under the collective term “Chaos Magic.” As explained in Wikipedia: “Chaos magic has been described as a union of traditional occult techniques and applied postmodernism – particularly a postmodernist skepticism concerning the existence or knowability of objective truth. Chaos magicians subsequently treat belief as a tool, often creating their own idiosyncratic magical systems…”

A character in Lock Tower explains to Abby that he was drawn to Postmodern Magic because it is “free of doctrine and bullshit, a completely scientific search for truth.” Abby finds this appealing, but also worrisome. Postmodern magic lacks the structure and guidance she is used to from the Circle of Harmony. Yet is also offers power that she needs.

The Concept of the Egregore

Two concepts from Chaos Magic that figure prominently in Ghosts of Lock Tower are sigils and the egregore.

We’ll leave sigils for perhaps another time, but (again quoting Wikipedia), “Egregore (also egregor) is an occult concept representing a “thoughtform” or “collective group mind”, an autonomous psychic entity made up of, and influencing, the thoughts of a group of people.”

Source: Supernatural Magazine, Image Source: https://supernaturalmagazine.com/articles/egregore

Notice that an egregore is both made up of the thoughts of a group of people (usually an occult circle) and also influences their thoughts. An independent entity, created by thought, that manifests in the world and affects peoples’ minds – if you spend any time on social media, it is no stretch at all to see how this idea compares to a meme.

The egregore in Ghosts of Lock Tower begins life as a character in an online game. Soon he is adopted as a meme representing collective rage and hate.

But why a frog?

The egregore first appears early in the book. Abby has a nightmare that takes place in a virtual reality game world. She runs in terror through dungeons and corridors filled with dazed and injured young people. Finally:

I enter an upper chamber, like a temple or throne room. Suits of glittering armor stand along the walls. More kids are lined up in a queue, approaching a throne. On the throne sits a huge white frog, with mad angry eyes in its head—and dozens more eyes in its stomach. A girl approaches the throne, and the frog monster opens its mouth. She shrieks as he sucks her in, like sipping cola through a straw.

A frog monster
A Frog Monster similar to the one in the novel. Source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/480266747758596316/

When I drafted that scene, the image of the egregore as a giant white frog spilled readily out of my unconscious. It was only later that I realized a connection. In our own little world there is in fact a meme (or egregore) that started as a harmless online character but transformed into a powerful emblem for hate. You may have heard of Pepe the Frog .

Pepe the Frog from New York Magazine
Pepe the Frog, from an article in New York Magazine. http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2017/04/the-whole-world-is-now-a-message-board.html

The ways of the group mind are vast, deep, and strange, gentle reader. Like Abby, we all must look for principles and guideposts to help us navigate the chaos.

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To learn more about Abby’s quest to combine the two forms of magic, check out Ghosts of Lock Tower here .
You can also read more about the frog monster in this (free online) story published by Harbinger Press: “Return of the Egregore.”

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.

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Ghosts of Lock Tower is scheduled for publication Summer of 2019

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

 

A Priestess of Aphrodite, Part 2

In last month’s post, we introduced Berenicea, one of the main female characters in The Treasure of the Sun God. She is a prosperous hetaera (courtesan) and also a Priestess of Aphrodite.

As mentioned last time, because of the historical circumstances of the ancient world, I found it challenging to create women characters who are both realistic for their time and relatable for a contemporary audience.

The challenge was brought home to me in the reactions of some of my beta readers to Berenicea. One woman had a hard time understanding the character, and in particular thought the scene between her and Thalia (see last month’s post) added nothing of value to the story. Another reader, a man, found Berenicia “too good to be true” and said that she read too much like “a male fantasy.”

“Aphrodite of Rhodes”. Statue of the Goddess rising from her bath, copy of a work from the Hellenistic period. source https://www.theoi.com/Gallery/S10.16.html

 

Responding to Beta Readers

Of course, every reader is different, and it can be hard for a writer to know when to make changes based on beta feedback. But when more than one reader finds a similar problem with a character or plot point, it tells me I’d better examine the issue.

In this case, at least two readers were not finding my priestess understandable or sympathetic. When this happens, I think the writer needs to take a close look at the character and “imagine harder.”

Re-imagining the Priestess

Who was Berenicia in my mind?

Her type of character was based on historical sources: an accomplished hetaera, a mistress and companion to leading male citizens. But she is also more than that. As a teenager, she heard Korax sing of how he saw the Goddess of Love within her. That moment changed her life, and set her on the path to become a priestess. In her mind, being a priestess means embodying her ideal vision of the goddess she serves.

A theme of the whole Conjurer of Rhodes series is that the immortals can only act in our world through human vessels. Berenicea conceives of herself as a vessel for the Goddess of Love. She strives each day to embody that ideal and express love for everyone.

Aphrodite and Adonis. Attic red-figure squat lekythos, ca. 410 BC. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=530718

 

Rewriting the Scene

With these thoughts in mind, I rewrote the scene where Berenicia speaks with Thalia. Here is the revised scene, with the changes in bold. (You can compare this to the original scene in the previous post.)

Standing on the harbor quay, Berenicia pours a libation and speaks a prayer to Aphrodite. She asks that the goddess bless the men of the Rhodian navy who have just sailed off to war, and asks particular protection for two men she loves, Korax and Patrollos. She is overheard by Thalia, a young noblewoman who is the sister of Patrollos and betrothed to Korax.

At last, she turned to leave. But along with her servants, someone else watched her, a small young woman with golden hair and eyes red from crying.

“That was beautiful,” she murmured. “I am Thalia.”

“I know who you are, my lady.”

“I knew that Patrollos and Korax both love you. But I did not realize how you also love them.”

Berenicea smiled. “You did not think a woman like me capable of such love?”

“No … Please forgive me, I meant no insult.” Thalia started to withdraw.

“Wait.” Berenicea approached her. “I took no offense.”

Thalia peered into the hetaera’s eyes. “May I ask you a question, priestess?”

“Of course.”

“Mistress Thalia! Your parents sent me to find you.” One of the woman servants from the House of Philophron called from a few yards away. “It is time to go home now.”

“Tell them I will be there in a moment,” Thalia said.

“Mistress, you should not be speaking with … that woman.”

“I will come in a moment. Go!”

The servant scowled but turned and bustled off.

“What is your question?” Berenicea asked.

“Why are they both so in love with you? You are very beautiful, of course. But so are many other women. I feel there must be more to it.”

“They are my friends, but they are not in love with me, not in the way you mean. Patrollos responds to the goddess, because she loves him so much, loves his weakness as well as his strength. And Korax—Well, he just needs a place to rest his head.” She ended with a fond smile.

But Thalia frowned in confusion. “I do not understand you.”

Berenicea sighed. “They do not love me, but the goddess within me. I am simply her vessel. She is what most men seek in women. Because, whatever love men bring, she blesses it and makes them feel it is wonderful, and that it is enough.”

“But, then … is there nothing for you?”

“Oh, yes.” Berenicea said. “There is service and sacrifice, but also much joy. Because I feel Aphrodite’s love inside me every day. And she loves the whole world.”

Thalia blinked and shook her head. “I am no priestess, and I could never be so selfless. I fear no one will ever love me the way Korax loves you.”

Berenicea stared at her, as if listening to a whisper. “I suggest you pray to the goddess. Ask her to fill your heart. I feel that … First she must teach you to love yourself. After that, well, you may be surprised.” Smiling kindly, she caressed the girl’s hair with both hands, then bent and kissed her forehead. “I give you her blessing, dear child.”

The priestess straightened, to find Thalia’s eyes shining with fresh tears.

Excerpt from The Treasure of the Sun God (c) 2019 by Jack Massa


Results

I sent the revised scene to the two beta readers mentioned above. Both of them felt it was an improvement, and that it gave them a clearer picture of Berenicia.

What do you think, gentle reader? In the context of an historical novel, can you relate to a priestess who strives to live the ideal of loving the whole world?

Aprhodite with Swan, from Rhodes. Source https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0d/Aphrodite_swan_BM_D2.jpg

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Learn more about the Conjurer of Rhodes books

Find The Treasure of the Sun God on Amazon.

A Priestess of Aphrodite, Part 1

In the Conjurer of Rhodes books, I tried to create characters who are not only well-rounded and interesting to a modern reader, but realistic for the times in which they lived. This is a challenge for every historical novelist.

Women in Antiquity

When writing about the ancient world, it’s especially challenging with women characters. Greece in particular, was notoriously patriarchal. Wives were essentially treated as chattel, and women for the most part were either wives, slaves, or prostitutes. (See Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves – Women in Classical Antiquity by Sarah B. Pomeroy.)

Yet free women did have certain legal rights, and wives had considerable power within the home. Prostitutes (hetaera) might be educated and independent, and could rise to social prominence. It was not uncommon for hetaerae who began their lives as slaves to earn their freedom and become quite wealthy.

Hetaera at a Symposium, source https://www.ancient.eu/article/927/women-in-ancient-greece/


From Slave Girl to Priestess

Berenicia, one of the main women characters, fits into that category. When we first meet her (in flashbacks in Book 1) she is a flute girl, of Celtic heritage, red-haired and lovely. A slave in the house of a well-known courtesan, she has just come of age and become a prostitute.

When our hero Korax sings a hymn to Aphrodite and makes it plain that Berenicea has inspired him, the girl feels the stirring of the goddess within her. She begins to believe she can become more than simply a slave girl, and thereafter asks her mistress to train her as a priestess.

The degree to which sacred prostitution existed in Greece is controversial, although it seems to have been well-established in other ancient cultures. (See “Sex in the Service of Aphrodite, Did Prostitution Really Exist in the Temples of Antiquity?” and also “Ancient Greek Temples of Sex.”)

We also don’t know a lot about the priestesses of Aphrodite and their position in society. However, given the evidence we do have for Greece (especially Corinth) and the fact that during the Hellenistic period— when the Conjurer of Rhodes books are set— there was considerable influence from Eastern cultures, it seems plausible that a young courtesan in Rhodes might also become a priestess of the Goddess of Love.

A few of the books used to research the Conjurer of Rhodes series.

 

Courtesan Meets Future Wife

What would such a woman be like?

When we meet Berenicia again, in The Treasure of the Sun God, she is in her early twenties. Both a priestess and hetaera, she is beautiful, educated, and a patroness of the arts. She owns her own house and entertains a select group of clients. She is the lover of both Korax, who has returned to Rhodes, and his rival, Patrollos.

In a key scene, Korax and Patrollos have just sailed off to war. A crowd has gathered to watch the departure of the fleet. As the citizens disperse, Berenicia stands on the dock, pours a libation, and speaks aloud a prayer to Aphrodite, asking that the goddess may protect both of the men she loves. She is overheard by Thalia, who is the sister of Patrollos and betrothed to Korax.

Here is the beta version of that scene.

At last, she turned to leave. But along with her servants, someone else watched her, a small young woman with golden hair and eyes red from crying.

“That was beautiful,” she murmured. “I am Thalia.”

“I know who you are, my lady.”

“I know that Patrollos and Korax both love you. But I did not realize how you also love them.”

Berenicea smiled. “You did not think a woman like me capable of such love?”

“No … Please forgive me, I meant no insult.” Thalia started to withdraw.

“Wait.” Berenicea approached her. “I took no offense.”

Thalia peered into the hetaera’s eyes. “May I ask you a question, priestess?”

“Of course.”

“Mistress Thalia! Your parents sent me to find you.” One of the woman servants from the House of Philophron called from a few yards away. “It is time to go home now.”

“Tell them I will be there in a moment,” Thalia replied.

“Mistress, you should not be speaking with … that woman.”

“I will come in a moment. Go!”

The woman scowled but turned and bustled off.

“What is your question?” Berenicea asked kindly.

“Why are they both so in love with you? You are very beautiful, it is true, but is that the only reason.”

“They are my friends, but they are not in love with me, not in the way you mean. Patrollos adores Aphrodite through me, because she accepts his weaknesses as well as his strengths. And Korax—Well, he just needs a place to rest his head.”

Thalia frowned in confusion. “I do not understand you.”

Berenicea put a hand on her shoulder. “My dear, men adore me because I give them my adoration. Whatever love they bring, I bless it and make them feel it is wonderful, and that it is enough. That is the secret of Aphrodite; she welcomes all offerings with an open heart.”

Thalia’s face was solemn. “I understand your words. But is it really that simple?”

Berenicea lowered her eyes, amused. “Simple to say, less simple to do. But if every wife practiced this secret, even a little, there would be less work in the world for hetaeras.” She caressed the young woman’s hair. “May the Goddess bless you always, my lady.”

Excerpt from The Treasure of the Sun God (c) 2019 by Jack Massa

 

Readers’ Reactions

When I sent the novel to beta readers, their reaction to Berenicea, and to this scene in particular, convinced me I had a problem. What the readers had to say, and what I did about it, will be the subject of the next blog post.

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Check out the Conjurer of Rhodes series here.

Dionysus, Lord of Voices

When I first started writing the  Conjurer of Rhodes series , I renewed my acquaintance with the ancient Greek gods and goddesses. Early in the Conjurer books the protagonist Korax recklessly summons the god Dionysus to help him win a singing contest. This leads Korax to a world of trouble, and led me to research the god of wine and frenzy.

Dionysus 2. 0135: Roman copy of Greek original from 4C BC. Glyptothek, München. Source: : http://www.maicar.com/GML/Dionysus2.html

Origin Myth

Dionysus was the son of Zeus and a mortal princess, Semele. According to one version of the myth, the Goddess Hera, disguised as an old woman, paid a visit to Semele and convinced her to demand that her lover show himself in his true aspect. When Zeus swore an oath to give Semele anything she wished for, he was forced to comply. Unfortunately, mortals cannot gaze on the full glory of the gods, and poor Semele was incinerated.

Zeus rescued the unborn Dionysus and sewed the child into his thigh. Dionysus was born a few months later and is thus called “twice-born.” Oh, and no need to mourn for Semele. When Dionysus grew up, he took a journey to the Underworld, rescued the shade of his mother, and brought her to Olympus.

The Festival of Dionysis

The fact that Dionysus was incubated close to the generative organs of the King of the Gods doubtless reflects his later association with fertility and the generation of life. The Athenians celebrated his festival in the Spring, to mark the end of winter and the harvesting of new crops. This Great Dionysia was a time of singing, dancing, and theater, and Dionysus was considered the god of plays and players.

The Frenzy of the Bacchae

The most famous appearance of Dionysus in Greek literature is, of course, in Euripides’ The Bacchae.

In mythology the Bacchae, or maenads, were female worshippers of Dinoysus who followed the god through the hills, intoxicated and ecstatic.

But it wasn’t only the wine. According to scholar Walter Burkert (Greek Religion, English Translation 1985 by Harvard University Press, page 161):

“Intoxication as a change in consciousness is interpreted as the irruption of something divine … Everyone who surrenders to this god must risk abandoning his everyday identity and becoming mad; this is both divine and wholesome.”

The Fate of Pentheus

In Euripides’ play, the rulers of Thebes are not so welcoming to this divine madness. Pentheus the king outlaws the worship of Dionysius and actually imprisons the god, whom he takes for a mortal acolyte.

Angered, Dionysus inspires Pentheus’ mother and aunts to rush off to the mountains and join the Bacchic rites. He then lures Pentheus out to spy on the women. The maenads discover the king and tear him limb from limb. (A clear lesson, I must say, to those who would scorn either the gods or the power of women.)

Pentheus torn apart by Ino and Agave, lekanis lid, ca. 450-450 BC, Louvre. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pentheus

A Hymn to Dionysus

The following poem recounts the story of Dionysus and sees a glimmer of relevance to our own times.

Dionysus, Lord of Voices

Appearing in the city street,
Ivy-crowned and panther-coated,
Speaking many tongues together,
Teacher of intoxication,
Herald of his own religion:
Honor and revere the god,
You poets of the sacred songs.

Born of mortal, Theban princess.
To gaze on god she insisted.
Zeus revealed himself in lightning,
Burned her flesh and bones to ashes.
Green vines sprang to shield the unborn
Child, sewn into the thigh of Zeus,
Carried to the sacred mountain,
Nursed by nymphs, nourished on honey–
Immortal child born of death.

Come of age, the god departed,
Journeyed through the lands of Asia,
Taught the Mysteries to mortals,
Conquered countries with his revels,
Spread the culture of the vine–
Sweet the pleasure of the dancing,
Whirling to the many voices,
Ecstasy of knowing god.

Only Thebes refused him worship:
Rulers adamant with power,
Arrogant and frozen-hearted.
So he lashed the town with madness,
Roused the women to rebellion,
Cast them roaming on the mountain,
Freed their willful hearts with shouting,
Till they tore their lords to pieces,
Prideful men disdaining god.

Now our nation too is frozen:
Princes gluttonous with power,
People circling dumb with fear.
Dionysus, Lord of Voices,
Will your call awake our cities?
Singer of the wild places:
Blessed are those who know your secrets;
Bereft are they who scorn the gods.

Satyr and Dionysus, Athenian red-figure kylix C5th B.C., Antikensammlung Berlin source https://www.theoi.com/Olympios/Dionysos.html

 

You can learn more about the Conjurer of Rhodes Books here or find Book 1 on Amazon.

Jack’s Crazy Writing Life, and the Goddess Hekate

While waiting for beta reader feedback on The Mazes of Magic (the first book in the brand new Conjurer of Rhodes series), I have been making a start on the next Abby Renshaw adventure. My initial plan was to write another novella, perhaps a bit longer than Ghosts of Tamgrove Hallbut still something that could be written quickly.

BUT … sometimes a writer’s plans go astray. Stories take on a life of their own. They grow into unruly children, though we love them for it all the more. The next Abby story (working title, The Secret of Lock Tower) wants to be longer, perhaps a full-length novel. It is growing in several directions at once.

One of those directions, I discovered last night, circles back to the Goddess Hekate.

As I wrote in a blog post in 2016, Hekate was the name given by Neoplatonist occult philosophers of antiquity to a female deity that they conceived of as seated at the portal between the “uncreated fire” and the manifest Universe. This figure was the inspiration for the “Goddess Who Shapes All Things” in Ghosts of Bliss Bayou.

Hecate Image
Goddess Image, possibly Hecate, from antique tile.

But Hekate, of course, appears much earlier in Greek mythology, and is also a Goddess figure honored today by neopagans worldwide. Those interested in learning about the many facets of this fascinating deity would enjoy the book Bearing Torches: A Devotional Anthology for Hekate published in 2009 by Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

I was honored to be included in that anthology under a pen name, Corbin. Here is the poem I contributed, which I will let speak for itself:

Hecate

She stands at the crossroads under the cowl
Of the sky with goblets in all her claws.
Wind flutters her cloak, obscuring the moon,
Revealing the Book of the Laws.

Ruby wine beckons but I dare not drink
In the night with her eyes like coins of gold
Watching and her silence as ominous
And deep as the sea is old.

O seedless vision, Daughter of the Gates
Of Time, is your offer enlightenment,
Your gift illumination or demise?
Which brings the best contentment?

Kind Dark Mother, I will decline all cups,
Slip away, head bowed as in reflection.
Let me walk a bit longer in the air,
Goddess, but which direction?

Copyright 2009 by Jack Massa. All rights reserved.