August 1 is the Neo-pagan and Wiccan holiday known as Lammas. For many witches and pagans this is the time when the young male God identified with the harvest of the seasonal wheat crop is sacrificed in the interest of the larger cycles of birth, death, and renewal. Here in Greece August 15 is a major holiday celebrating the Dormition and Assumption (death and rebirth) of the Panagia, She Who Is All Holy.
In her ground-breaking book The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Goddess, Starhawk identified the ancient religion of the great Goddess with Wiccan tradition defined by the Englishman Gerald Gardner and transmitted to her through her initiation into the Faery (or Feri) tradition of the Americans Victor and Cora Anderson. In her vision, the ancient religion of the great Goddess is understood to be a magical tradition in which spells play a prominent role.
While the magical traditions on which Gerald Gardner drew spoke of an alchemical process in which base metals could be transformed into gold, Starhawk redefined magic in psychological terms, as “the art of changing consciousness at will.” She explained the Wiccan Wheel of the Year and its eight seasonal holidays through the metaphor of a psychological journey of the soul from birth, through death, to rebirth.
In Starhawk’s rituals, participants are typically asked to focus on their own desires, wishes, and struggles. In spring they might plant a seed bound with a spell: willing that as the seed sprouts, so may a new love or a new job spring forth in their own lives. At Lammas, they might ask themselves what they need to sacrifice or let die in their own lives—for example a bad habit or a bad relationship—in order to achieve balance and wholeness.
As a young woman, psychologizing the religion of the great Goddess appealed to me. My life was still unfolding, and I was attracted to the idea that I could achieve my desires and manifest my will through the use of spells and rituals. But try as I might—and I did try very hard—my life did not unfold according to my will.
Now that I am older, I think the whole enterprise of psychologizing the religion of the Goddess is misguided. I believe that the great Goddess loves the world and every individual in it: Goddess is always there not only to hear the cries of the world but also to rejoice in its joys. At the same time, I have learned that the world does not revolve around me. While I do believe that rituals can heal and make us whole, I no longer believe that their purpose is to enable me to achieve my will in the world.
Rather, rituals help me to understand that I am part of a whole much larger than myself. And that no matter what happens or does not happen in my individual life, I am part of and participate in an interdependent life that is much bigger and infinitely more complex than my individual desires and will. I have learned that ritual is not about me. Rather it is about giving thanks for the gift of life and the gifts of life and sharing those gifts with others.
This season I will pour a blessing of water onto the parched earth with this prayer:
As we bless the Source of Life, so we are blessed.
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Carol’s photo by Michael Honegger
Carol’s new book written with Judith Plaskow, is Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology.
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