Tuesday, June 16, 2015

An Introduction to Litha


 Ring of Brodgar; by Stevekeiretsu (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Litha, a Pagan Observance

By Race MoChridhe

On the Mainland of Orkney--the far edge of the world in the reckoning of ancient (and many modern) Britons--stands a great stone circle known as the Ring of Brodgar. In approximately three weeks, the Orkney sky will stay light all night, and the sun of the solstice morning will rise in perfect alignment with the cool, grey slabs. The stones raise far more questions than they answer, but they testify with clarity to the importance of the longest day in a year some forty centuries or more ago to a people who, in the depth of winter, might have scarcely seen the sun.

Their descendants, of all religions, continue to mark the day across the British Isles (as in various forms do their cousins throughout Europe and Iran). The Christians call it St. John’s Day, celebrating the birth of the Baptist. In this form, it has gone on to become the national holiday of several countries, most notably Quebec (province), Canada. The Pagans, who had celebrated it long before Christianity’s arrival, have come, nonetheless, to call it by a name invented by a churchman--Litha--drawn from the Venerable Bede’s Anglo-Saxon naming of the months. Although both mark it with bonfires to honor the power of the sun and rolling wheels to symbolize the turning of the year, in Christian cultures, sadly, the significance of the day has generally declined where it has not become secularized. In Pagan culture, however, its importance is undiminished.

Among Witches, Litha is celebrated as the height of the Lord’s vigor. The dying and reborn god, who had been reborn at the winter solstice, had grown into manhood at the spring equinox, and married the Lady at the beginning of May, now holds court in the fullness of his strength and radiance. As the embodiment of the inseminating principle of manifestation, he brings the natural world into its greatest abundance, he at the same time readies himself for the sacrifices of the harvest season, during which he will spend his strength to bring forth the fruits of the earth, aging into fall and dying at Samhuinn (Hallowe’en) to begin the cycle again. This version of Litha, which finds its most important expression in the fullness of the trees and the length of the grass, symbolizes on a microcosmic level the true actualization of the Self which is possible when the masculine and feminine principles (the animus and anima in psychological terms) are fully united in the hieros gamos--the sacred marriage around which Wiccan ritual revolves.

Modern Druidry also focuses on the fecundity of the season but, in keeping with Druidic tradition, generally develops the theme through the imagery of inspiration more than fertility. While the winter solstice is identified with inspiration itself, the spring equinox reflects the reception of that inspiration, and the summer solstice is the time of its expression. This version of Litha (or, in Druidic parlance, Alban Hefin), identified most strongly with the advancing light of the solstice morning, celebrates the movement from idea to realization, both microcosmically in the magickal exercise of the human will, and macrocosmically in the manifestation of the cosmos from Word and Wisdom in the mind of God (or the Gods, if one prefers). Many Druids also take it practically as the time of year most suited to getting things done and hence, while it has become customary in our society to take long vacations in the summer, Druids often wait to go on holiday until around the time of the fall equinox, which Druidic tradition dedicates to recollection.

The very fact that Midsummer marks the official beginning of vacation season in Sweden, however, is one sign of the day’s continuing importance in northern Europe, used to justify modern Heathens’ celebration of Litha (which, curiously, is alone among the solstices and equinoxes in not having had a mandatory sacrifice booked on the Norse calendar). This Litha, expressed most beautifully in the exultation of communities brought together by the long, golden evening, is marked with the aforementioned bonfires (leapt through to bring good luck in planting or love) and rolling wheels, but also gathering flowers and herbs, dancing, divination, and an all-night vigil (of a more raucous, joyous kind than that word often implies). 

But no matter how we mark the occasion, what we all--4,000 years ago or today, Christian or Pagan--gather to celebrate is the fact that Divinity, by whatever name we choose to call It, has brought forth our world and us with it, and given us a day under the sun in which to know life, and love, and laughter. May we all rejoice in it, and be glad.

Litha is most commonly celebrated on the 21st of June, and in the southern hemisphere, on the 21st of December.

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Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Tower and the Gate of Hell

The Devil, RWS
The Devil, RWS

What Can be Learnt from the Tarot's Tower Card?

By Race MoChridhe Few cards in the tarot inspire such unease as the Devil. Its chained figures speak of bondage to materialism, to ignorance, and to despair. It comes uninvited, and yet desperately needed, to tell us of dark powers that hold us in thrall, whether or not one chooses to believe in demonic agents. And yet I have many times seen a face darken still more when the Tower is drawn, as though one might reach/make d├ętente with hell, but the Tower is the sure sign of one’s undoing—a fall into outer darkness.

In Japan, Buddhist teachers speak of two paths to enlightenment: the path of jiriki, or ‘self-power’, attaining enlightenment through one’s own efforts, and that of tariki, or ‘other-power’, seeking the aid of a Buddha through prayer and invocation. Both paths are generally accepted, but different schools focus on one or the other. Zen, for example, teaches jiriki, and reminds other schools that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. The Pure Land schools, on the other hand, teach tariki, and remind Zen students at the feet of their masters that they, too, have sought another’s aid upon the path.

In the more narrative and pictorial West, what Buddhism relates in concepts, Judeochristianity relates in characters. Other-power is perhaps perfectly exemplified in the figure of Abraham, whose every decision was guided by the voice of God, and whose faith was accounted to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). Self-power, then, may seem at first to find its biblical expression in Abraham’s archnemesis, Nimrod—the giant who built the Tower of Babel to reach the heavens by human effort alone, the destruction of which is depicted on the tarot’s sixteenth trump in many decks.

The Tower, RWS
The Tower, RWS

At first glance, the message would seem to be clear and in stark contrast to Buddhism—reliance upon God (tariki) is the path to enlightenment, while reliance upon the self (jiriki) leads to disaster and to destruction. Which of us does not, upon laying out the Tower, tremble just a little at the thought of the judgements our hubris might deserve? And yet the message, like the biblical story itself, is subtler than we give it credit for.

In the absence of any statement of his motives in Genesis, we often assume that Nimrod built his tower to reach heaven, but the Jewish historian Josephus read the tale differently: “He [Nimrod] also said he would be revenged on God, if he should have a mind to drown the world again; for that he would build a tower too high for the waters to reach.”

Nimrod’s tower was not simple effrontery; it was an insurance policy. In building a tower to escape death, however, Nimrod was also building one to escape change, to escape renewal, to escape the cleansing passage of all that no longer serves, for (as any tarotist will well appreciate) these are the true significations of death. Nimrod’s story is not a simple warning against the pride of relying on self-power; it is a reminder that relying too heavily on self-power can sometimes lead us into narrow interests, blocking the grace of other-power, which so often uses precisely those “deadly” forces. It is a plea, sharp and strong as a lightning bolt, to leave one hand open as we climb to heaven, ready to receive whatever may fall from above, including rain.

Indeed, in some decks the biblical episode depicted on the card is not the fall of the Tower of Babel, but instead the Harrowing of Hell—an act of other-power par excellence. In many Eastern Orthodox depictions, Christ stands atop the ruined gates of hell—the very walls against other-power that Nimrod erected in his resistance—and holds Adam and Eve each by the wrist rather than the hand, showing that man cannot save himself, but is wholly dependent on God to make good his escape from the fence that pens him in with Satan. And yet the grip upon their wrists cannot help but call to mind the fetters of the fifteenth trump. Thus we learn that all servitude is not slavery, as Christ Himself taught when he asked us to “Take my yoke upon you … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:29-30)

Is there then still nothing good to say of self-power? God forbid. Even Paul counseled to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). Perhaps what being held by the wrist signifies is that, even when other-power seems to have decided for us, we still have our hands free to reach where we will. What divine decree could seem more final than the Flood? And yet Joshua called upon the people to “choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods that your fathers served which were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites … but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:15). Even as God saved a remnant, that mankind might still be able to choose Him, even after the waters had settled they remained free to choose the gods they had worshipped before.

If the Devil, then, gives us a sign of the powers into whose hands we have delivered ourselves, the Tower reminds us that we are chained only by the wrists, and might still stretch out our own hands to different energies. It remains in our own power to choose what other powers we might be delivered to, and in this, far from being a judgement, the Tower is an invitation to repent, well deserving of its alternate name in the Tarot de Marseille—“La Maison-Dieu”, the House of God.

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