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Planets for Pagans
Sacred Sites, Ancient Lore, And Magical Stargazing
By Renna Shesso
Weiser Books Copyright © 2011 Renna Shesso
All rights reserved.
Following the North Star
These are stories of love and Eternity, of deities and disguises, and of ancient knowledge that have receded into mystery. As mysteries go, however, this is one of the most playful:
The little girls are dressed as bear cubs, and they are dancing.
But let's start at the beginning.
First came wide-wandering Eurynome, Goddess of All Things, borne out of Chaos. Eurynome took the North Wind and crafted a great serpent from its air. She named this serpent Ophion; She danced with the snake and then She coupled with it. And then, from their mating, Eurynome birthed all things. All! Among the beings Eurynome brought forth were Phoebe, whose name means "bright," and Coeus, who ruled the intellect and the starry axis of the heavens. Together Phoebe and Coeus had a daughter, Leto.
Her name may come from lethô, "to move unseen." But Leto was seen. Zeus saw, desired, and courted Her. From Her mating with Zeus, Leto bore a pair of remarkable divine twins who, between them, governed Night and Day. They were called Apollo and Artemis—a god of the Sun and a goddess of the Moon.
Artemis was also the goddess of the hunt, the wild places, and all wild creatures, and was Herself devoted to independence. Four prancing, golden-horned deer pulled Her chariot. Sleek hounds and young mortal maidens were Her companions—among them Kallisto, "the fairest one."
Now Zeus saw Kallisto. He pursued her—was He disguised as His own daughter Artemis?—and caught her.
Kallisto remained among Artemis' companions until, one day when all were bathing, Artemis saw that Kallisto was with child. The goddess was furious. Pregnant women shouldn't masquerade as virgin devotees. So Artemis transformed Kallisto into a bear and, calling to Her huntress companions and Her hounds, set out to hunt Her former friend.
Zeus saw all this and intervened. He hid His lover, the bear-Kallisto, high up among the stars, along with a smaller bear—Kallisto's son, Arcus.
One ancient ritual of Artemis was the arteia—"playing the bear"—during which little girls were dressed in honey-colored robes and yellow bear-skins. Costumed as bear cubs, they danced to honor Artemis—as if in a mystery school's kindergarten play, but on a much larger, public scale that included entire city-states. "Playing the bear" was a rite of passage for Athenian girls, their debut into the spiritual life of their city.
So, we begin our story with a goddess and her sensual dancing snake, beings who "move unseen," deities of Day and Night, shape-shifting gods, and the great night sky—especially the great She-Bear who still dwells among the stars, spinning nonstop above us (see figure 1).
The act of starting to write can be vertigo-inducing. In looking for my own starting point—and feeling as if I were going around in circles—I suddenly remembered that this is literally true.
I am going in circles. We all are. The Earth itself is rotating constantly, and we're all along for the ride. We observe this rotation when we watch the Sun "rising" and "setting"; but it's the Earth's own spin that accounts for the Sun's apparent journey across the sky.
Storytelling is sometimes called "spinning a yarn." It's a good image, and a recurring one. We weave a tale, picking up the thread of one theme or another as we go along. There are strands beyond number to the stories of the sky—all interwoven, perhaps even entangled—but most of them come back to that dizzying sense of the Earth's spin and how we and our very distant ancestors have tried to make sense out of the planets, the stars, and the Moon and the Sun whirling above us. This is a book of stories—of threads through time—spun, woven, and hopefully un tangled. We'll look at the lore of the heavens, some sky-related sites that our ancestors created, and ways of enlisting the sky as a spiritual ally now, in our own era. And—especially—we'll look at the sky itself.
As we do that, patterns will gradually begin to emerge, often against a background of deepest blue.
The Earth's motion is visible during the day by watching the Sun, but we see our planet's rotation more vividly in the night sky. Nowhere is it more obvious than around the "Pole Star," Polaris, also known as the North Star. That is our starting point. You can find the North Star using star patterns that many of us learn in childhood—the Big and Little Dippers, more formally known as portions of the Great Bear, Ursa Major, and the Little Bear, Ursa Minor. These two Dipper asterisms (recognizable star groups that aren't constellations) have long been known and valued throughout the Northern Hemisphere. The Big Dipper is the easier of the two to find, thanks to its size and brightness. Once you find the Big Dipper, you can find the North Star (the brightest in Ursa Minor) by using the pointer stars Merak ("the loin," or haunch, of the Bear) and Dubhe (Ursa Major's ITLαITL or brightest star) at the edge of the Dipper farthest from the handle (see figure 2). This is wonderfully useful. Rather than trying to find Polaris, a single star, just search for the larger pattern of a recognizable group and proceed from there. Designations of alpha, beta, and other Greek letters were used early on to rank the relative brightness of individual stars within a constellation.
The Big Dipper is likely to be visible even when viewed from amid the competing lights of a city thanks to two things: Although it rotates, it stays put in the north, so we know where to look, and it has some stars bright enough to cut through city lights. We've become so accustomed to murky, not-really-dark city nights that many of us are startled by the visual overload of stars in a truly dark, rural sky. Ironically, on the other hand, urban light pollution makes it easy to spot the brightest stars by wiping out the competition, and the Big Dipper often manages to blaze through.
Watch this area of sky some night for even half an hour or so and you'll see the steady counterclockwise motion that our Northern Hemisphere ancestors watched for millennia.
Above about 40° N (north) latitude, most of the Big Dipper is visible—or its pointer stars Dubhe and Merak, at least—every night of the year as it swings around the Pole Star like clock hands turning backward. It's circumpolar and thus never fully sets. As you get farther south, at about 20° N from the equator, the Little Dipper literally dips, as if scooping up water in its pan (see figure 3).
Latitude is measured horizontally, from the Earth's equator (which is 0°) to the North Pole and South Pole (which are at 90° N and 90° S, respectively). The higher the number of your location's latitude, the farther north or south you are. Longitude, the east-or-west vertical measurement, begins from a line running between the North and South Poles through Greenwich, England (site of the Royal Observatory, designated 0°) and moves east and west, measuring 180° in each direction, for a total of 360°. When used to measure the sky, degrees are applied as if projected forth against the inside of a vast sphere (astronomical) or as if marking locations along equal-sized zodiac signs (astrological).
Those of us who watch the Moon, the Sun, and the planets amid the zodiacal constellations are accustomed to looking in the other direction. We face south, focusing on a south-centered arc of sky where the planets and zodiac constellations are all located along the ecliptic, the Sun's path. But we have to face north to find the two Bears.
Watching the ecliptic, we see stars and planets move from left to right across the sky. That's how we read in English—from left to right—and that's how time passes on a clock, with the hands swinging up and over, left to right, clockwise.
But facing north, things are different. The stars move counter clockwise around Polaris. I sometimes feel a bit queasy when I watch the Bears, as if I were spinning in the wrong direction. Picture yourself standing along a one-way street filled with a parade heading west. If you watch from the north side of the street, you see them all moving from left to right; but if you cross the street and watch from the south side, you see them moving from right to left. The travelers haven't changed direction, but your perspective has shifted. Here's an additional consideration about which direction we face: When we look south, we see celestial motion as a huge arc between the eastern and western horizons, the visible portion of that rotating circle. Looking north, we see a full circle revolving around a central point.
We tend to equate "polar" with an earthly location—white bears, icy expanses, and intrepid explorers. But for early peoples, the Pole Star was perceived more literally as a pole—a stable center in the spinning sky, the picket stake around which everything else traveled, like a horse circling as it grazes at the end of its tether. The star at the center of all this action has been called Polaris since the Renaissance, the word coming from the Greek polos, meaning "pivot" or "axis." The movement of the other stars shows us the passage of time. The North Star, in its stillness, is outside of time and thus is a fitting symbol for Eternity. And indeed, to ancient peoples, it was the access point into Eternity.
The North Star, Spinning, Norns, and Runes
How many of our tools and crafts gradually evolved out of this steady pirouette of motion? Polaris inspires human creativity, whether we tether a horse out to graze or spin a compass to create an arc on paper. We spin fibers, coil baskets and pottery, rotate our potter's wheels, "turn" wood against a blade to give it shape, and grind our grain between millstones. We replicate this perpetual spin in the twirling motion within our ancient and modern dances and in the spirals found in art from every era (see figures 4 and 5).
Spinning is an ancient craft, and spun fiber fragments have been found that date back to Paleolithic times fifteen thousand years ago. A single strand of sheep's wool or plant fiber has only its own strength; but when multiple strands are twisted together—spun—they become stronger, thicker, and far more durable. A good indicator of spinning's value is how well-populated our mythologies and folktales are with women who spin. One familiar example is the Moirae, the three Greek Fates: Clotho spun the thread of each life; Lachesis measured it; Atropos cut it. In the Roman version, these are the Parcae: Nona, Decima, and Morta. In the Norse pantheon, the Norns spun fates. In fact, the word norn may derive from a word meaning "to twine." The Norns' individual names—Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld—mean "past," "present," and "the results of the present"—a beautiful alternative to "outcome" or "future," as it leaves the way open for change. When we alter what we're doing now, we affect what will result later.
The Moirae are good examples of how characters and their tokens are used to express vast universal concepts. Clotho and her spindle and distaff represent birth, the creation of life. Atropos and her knife or shears represent death, as does the Grim Reaper with his scythe. Lachesis, with her measuring rod or ruler, seems to have the most passive job—measuring Clotho's thread. In fact, she represents life itself in its full duration, its length.
The drop spindle is a simple thing, a weighted stick at the end of a cord, similar to a plumb line or a pendulum except that the suspending cord is being created as the spindle twirls. The spindle's role is to keep the strands of fiber taut as they're brought together in a twist (see figure 6). Sounds easy, but it isn't. Spinning a fine, even thread requires skill, dexterity, concentration, and practice.
The spindle's weight, or whorl, is a fat disk, a conical bead, or a flattened sphere that is most often made of stone or wood. The whorl is shaped for good balance and drilled through with a hole to accommodate the spindle's stick (see figure 7). Large or small, ornamented or plain, spindle whorls have been found worldwide and are sometimes mistaken for beads. Spinning wheels were luxury items, but the spindle and distaff (the long pole that held the un-spun fibers) were common tools among the less affluent.
In legend and lore, spindles have magical implications: Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger on a spindle's point and fell into an enchanted sleep; mounds of raw flax were spun in a single night; straw was spun into gold. Spinning may seem low-tech to us, but back when all tasks were done by hand, a whirling drop spindle was relatively automated (see figure 8). A bow-drill that made fire through friction was the next closest thing, both in automation and magical connotations.
Spinning was associated with women's concentration and craft, and with meditation and magic. Spinning with intention was a way to direct your energies magically—to manipulate reality like fibrous strands. A far-off battle might be spun into a husband's victory with help from his wife at home. Magical winds could be called forth by spinning, and sailors believed that spinning implements brought onboard ship provoked dangerous storms. The word seidhr refers to early Norse and Germanic shamanic trances and prophesying, but the word also connotes "string," "cord," "snare," and "halter." In some seidhr work, the intentions of the völva, the female shaman, are sent forth to seidha til sin, to "attract by seidhr," as if ensnaring something and pulling it to you, or manipulating an event from afar. The völva's staff of office—her seidhstafr—looked like an ornamented distaff. We'll look more closely at distaffs in chapter 10.
Whether these simple tools were used magically or for mundane purposes, the spindle and the distaff were powerful, distinctly female implements. The wary tone of the Old European lore surrounding both spindle and distaff stemmed from the fact that their skilled use was so specifically the province of women and, by contrast, so thoroughly foreign to men. As seen in old burial goods worldwide, the spindle whorl often went with a woman to her grave.
The Scandinavian goddess Frigg was the wife of Odin and the patroness of marriage, childbirth, and the home. Domestic order—harmony within the home—is Frigg's purview, a vast realm of responsibility in an era when everything—cloth, food, furniture, fire—was produced manually from scratch. Folktales of young women who spin, or spin with the aid of magic, or refuse to spin at all, come from a time when all women acquired this skill and were well aware of its value—thread, cloth, clothing, trade goods, creative expression, prestige.
Besides its pragmatic use, however, spinning was persistently equated with women's magic. One of Frigg's attributes was the ability to see the fate of all beings, although She didn't reveal what She saw. Some tales credit Frigg with giving the flax plant to humans and teaching them how to spin and weave its fibers into linen.
The North Star was considered the point of Frigg's spindle, as if all creation were spinning forth from Her. This interpretation includes some distinct shifts, the first of which is perceptual. Where other stars are grouped to portray objects and beings, the North Star—taken on its own—can portray an object's action.
The second shift is one of perspective. The North Star's spin is perceived not as if we were watching someone else using a spindle but as if we are the spinner, looking down along the cord and the spindle's shaft to the creative motion at the end. When we envision Frigg out there in space wielding Her spindle with the thread emerging downward toward the Earth, it is we ourselves who are being spun into existence.
Excerpted from Planets for Pagans by Renna Shesso. Copyright © 2011 Renna Shesso. Excerpted by permission of Weiser Books.
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