The Purification and Expiations of Winter

It has been snowing, although at this hour the snow from last night and this morning is slowly melting away, I spent some time this morning before work watching the large fat flakes of winter scatter from the heavens across the ground. Ah winter, it has arrived. I can clearly understand why once it was considered to be two seasons, rather than four to have been imagined. The season of fruition, of life, that which is the summer part of the year, and that of winter. Not a season of death so much, for death happens throughout the year, with the burning heat of the sun and the dwindling of life in autumn. Death is always around everywhere. Rather it seems more to be about the washing away, the purification (for which we have January named after Janus by the Romans, recognizing that there must be a cleansing before the return of life in the spring.

It becomes about sowing the crop for the next year, with prayers and all hope that the next year be fortuitous . It is the rainy season through which the clouds roll over the heavens. In warmer climes winter is marked by downpours, in cooler climes by blankets of snow. Wash away, O Gods, and prepare. This washing of the earth is simultaneously not only purifying but also fertile. The very season in which men dared not to travel on the sea and offered libations to Poseidon is the same season in which Pan, that virile god, fertilizes the land. He seeks and finds Demeter. Zeus, coiled into the recesses of the soil into the arms of Persephone. In the darkness, that which is cleansed is impregnated. Zeus, the impregnating golden shower. And lusty Dionysos rises just before the dawn of spring with his hallowed festivals which the honorable dead hold dear, and the fruit of the last year is tasted with the first casks open in the dawn of spring during Anthesteria, amid the lambing/calving season in which Apollon’s pastoral birth occurs, he who is lord of the season of fruits.

For all this talk of Purifications and Expiations it begs the question, why is the god of purifications, Apollon, away in the far lands during this season? If we consider that Hyperborea on one level, as was observed by some ancient opinions, was synonymous with land of the west (Elysium), even that which the gardens of Apollon in which even his “Libyan” gardens were confused by Pindar and to which he took Kyrene the lion-slayer, we find that Apollon is present in the winter but acting on another plane. This would likely not be too dissimilar to Persephone in the winter who is away from the company of Olympians but very much present on another chthonic level. If we consider that Hyperborea may have been the equivalent to Elysium, or some specific part of Elysium, and Apollon’s own mother was from this sacred land it certainly draws strong parallels to mystic tradition in which Persephone is the mother of Apollon as Iakhos, master of the winds. The great castle of which were considered all the liminal periphery of the next world even as the house of Helios and Selene, the two luminous bodies of the heavens had castles into the underworld to which they retired. This makes Apollon, in the winter, a chthonic force that acts from within/from afar.

He is not present in the downpour of rain, but within the earth, purifying it, even as the Erinyes, his elders (who Aeschylus has complain of Apollon as a usurper god of their providence as a clear demonstration of his powers and direct relationship to them), are purifying the dead who come into the underworld. He is working hidden, the Letoide (child of Leto, the hidden/obscure) on the fruits of the earth. For he makes fruitful, makes the cows carry twin calves, and the ewes twin lambs. He is as wealth in some respect, the wealth of plenty and crops, a suitable brother for Ploutus, the god of wealth. He is the god, who in the Orphic hymn views the very roots of all things. He cleanses all things at its deepest level. Even as the streams themselves lead to the underworld and the greatest among them (Styx, Lethe and Mnemonsyne) run forth there, Hesiod too, in his Theogony, calls all the streams and Apollon among them as those which are ordained for nurturing the young. The waters nurture and purify, and Apollon is among them.

O Apollon Hyoerboreios, you assuredly are working from afar, from the far places, hidden and obscure, O fiery chthonic lord, O Soranus of the wolfen cap, you cleanse all by your fire, you Lykeios stir the howling winds O Telkinhios. For you have set aside your golden crown, dancing in the night, You who purify even as the rain of Zeus washes all the world. Let us begin anew..

I see why the Dorics considered the onset of winter following the autumn equinox to be the beginning of a new year. It makes a certain sense to me. As much sense as the probable reason why the Romans, who were likely strongly influenced by the Southern Italian Hellenic colonies (Grecia Magna) moved their own traditional new year from March to January. All things best begin with the purifications, as who have given ritual unto the gods well know!

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the spirit of things

It seems that a great part of the polytheistic spiritual experience is not only the reverence and worship of the gods, but also includes a recognition of the spiritual beings within the world and living in a reciprocal relationship with local spirits and divine beings . This often includes honoring local spirits, nymphai, river divinities etc. In my own experience that may often be a natural attraction in which an individual may feel a kind of connection to their locality. This has happened only a few times to myself: in Alaska (where I was born and raised), in New Orleans (where I lived until Hurricane Katrina reared her head….and I am quite thankful to whatever benevolence granted that my family and comrads were found in time when our car broke down in the middle of nowhere on a highway through the woods of Mississippi after evacuation…it was just by chance that the sheriff’s department found us while doing their last rounds before the hurricane hit), and now upon entering halfway into Florida I felt a sense of welcome, a loosening of the chest, and something within me gratefully reach out towards the landscape and the occupying spirits. I felt the internal attraction which has occurred to seldom. And it brought peace and comfort to me. Something for which I have felt quite grateful after living in a place that I was turned off of on many levels. Over time this spiritual connection to the land will expand to establish familiarity with local flora, fauna and water features.

Aside from this there is another aspect to my spiritual life which should not be confused with magic practices/witchcraft/etc. As I recognize a spiritual presence in the world at large, and all things which naturally occupy the world, it is not unnatural that I would develope such relationships with certain flora. This is not uncommon of course, as we see that many plants are mythically associated with certain lovers of the gods. I have grown hyacinths in my garden, for instance, to honor Hyakinthos. There is such a wide number of divine beings that are immortalized and represented on earth by their plantly substance, which in turn is associated with those gods that they loved and were loved by and often bestow the divine benevolence by virtue of their presence. Perhaps the most common example is the use of the laurel (the transformed Daphne) that is associated both with providence of oracular work and purification. It is therefore not unnatural that one would gather such plant materials in order to accomplish specific functions on a spiritual level. This may include ritualized processes of gathering the plant material (as we see in the Stepteria festival of Delphi in which laurel was gathered and brought back to Delphi supposedly to be used in the Pythian games).

In this manner ancient Hellenes had laurel beside their gates beside the representation of Apollon Agyieus, and myrtle wound around altars of Aphrodite etc. Therefore I see adorning my home or otherwise incorporating certain plants in the features of my home to be part of such a spiritual relationship. I also prefer to grow my own plants when possible that I can harvest from and appropriately give offerings in thanks to when I remove the material. I include this not only in decor but also sewn into things like small sachets where such blessings can be contained, or placed into vials, which allows the material to be transportable and easier to keep.

All of this is part of an extended spiritual experience that is a natural part of polytheism but for which some may choose to avoid because it is connected so strongly with ideas of magic. I hope I have shown above that this is not necessarily the case. A connection to spirits of the land, to establishing the use of certain flora etc is found within many polytheistic traditions and something that is potentially rewarding and enriching of one’s spiritual life and practices in the oikos.

The issue of feminine “pollution”

There is something to be pondered of the entire issue of feminine pollution. I am not saying that females are in and of themselves inherently a pollutant (which would be counterproductive seeing that I am female) or that anyone particularly thinks that. Rather I am talking of a monthly point during which woman have often been viewed as sources of contamination in several cultures. To the point where a woman menstruating was restricted to specific lodges, or had to refrain from touching certain things depending on the culture in question.

As a priestess menstruation has been an unavoidable part of female life that just can’t be ignored. If tried viewing this from many different standpoints. For a while I considered that maybe touching things on the shrine and providing a religious service during this time would be disrespectful and so would refrain from all religious activity during those points. For of all the gods it had seemed that any kind of pollution would be the most offensive to Apollon. Did he not cringe when his temple was visisted by the Furies trailing after Orestes? Did he not refuse at first to aid Herakles when he mistakenly murdered an innocent man/a friend. So I had reasoning that it would likely be of the highest insult to Apollon to approach him during this time.  However I have long since abandoned this form of reasoning.

No, it is not because I feel a sense of “empowerment” of the feminine flow as some women do. I think that this is the opposite end to the same problematic situation. At one end of the spectrum is an issue of pollution connected to the state of cleanliness and the shedding of life through menstruation. It takes to an extreme to where purity and cleanliness are considered nonpresent despite the individual’s hygene. Or, among more metaphysical folks, that they are spilling out energy. On the other hand, seeing it as some matter of high sacridity seems also too excessive.

In the end both extremes seem to me nothing more than superstition. One supersition saying it is polluting, or expelling energy, and other saying that it is “female magic” and empowering. Reason, which rightfully quashes superstition, says that this is just a part of the natural bodily function with neither a direct association to power or pollution. Instead, it is a matter of taking care of our bodily needs in a way that is not disrespectful to the gods.

Perhaps it may call on a bit more of a vigorous  regard for hygiene to take care of any B.O. and other side effects in addition to the main problem. And as to the main problem much of it can be fixed by a tampon which prevents external soiling. But this is really no more than what we would expect to do before any ritual to make sure that we are clean before proceeding, it just means that there may be more to be aware of. So long as one is keeping herself clean and in good order there is no reason that any woman should feel that she is polluting a sacred area or in any way being disrespectful to her god. Instead she is able to fully enjoy all aspects of her spiritual life without interruption, something for which I am quite happy for, because I loathed having to take “time off”.