The cold water feels so good on overly hot skin and muscle as I step out into the gently moving river. I feel the tiny pecking of a school of fry at my ankles and watch their silver flashes as the dart around me. There is a sense of being at peace and connected to the land here. I take a moment to splash some water on my arms and face to purify myself for the work ahead. I grab my bag out of the canoe and step over to the spot where I built a small stone table last year. I am happy to find it is still standing at the shady spot where the tree line and river’s bank merge.
I glance down at the yellow tan rock that acts as the table top and notice all the white marks that are the fossils of long dead sea creatures that once swam freely here in the ocean that was Missouri. Most of the fossils are tiny spirals, but there is a clam shell every here and there. I think about the tree of life that evolution is and how it has branched out. These creatures are as much a part of my ancestry as my Grandma Bickerdyke is. Somewhere back there, these animals and I share a common ancestor. There is a connection to all that is alive in the world because we all share common ancestors, no matter how distant. Evolution is a strange Mistress and I know that I should make an offering to her today, so I reach into my bag to pull out the bread I had brought for the Earth Mother, and rip it in two. They are sisters in many ways, so I doubt they will mind sharing. I check to see if the small ditch I had dug last year still sits behind the table, and am happy to see it is still serviceable as a bowl for my offerings.
I pull each offering out of the bag, making a mental note of what goes for whom as I set them next to the stone table. The last to come out are the three tea light candles and the box of matches; these I set on the table top, covering a few small fossils in the process. I take a deep belly breath before sitting down before the altar. Criss cross, apple sauce runs through my head. I let my mind clear. I imagine my tailbone sinking into the ground as my head expands up into the sky. It is a gentle stretch that leaves me a little light headed and in a light trance. I pucker my lips to emit a quick high pitch whistle to alert the spirits that I am about to address them.
“Creature of fire, I call to you. May your light act as a beacon to the Kindred. Call them to join me here.”
The match hisses as the flame jumps into existence. I touch the top of the fire to the first wick.
“In honor of my ancestors, flesh of my flesh; bone of my bone.”
I touch the wick of the second candle with the match.
“In honor of the spirits of this land and of this place.”
The match has burned down far enough that I feel the heat on the tips of my fingers. I light the third candle wick.
“In honor of the Theoi, those Gods and Goddesses worthy of worship.”
I shake the match out and the smell of smoke makes me feel happy. I stare at the lights and let my eyes relax. I can feel them coming. Their eyes turn to watch what I will do next. I lift up half of the bread in one hand and lay the other on the ground next to my thigh.
“Earth Mother, you make life possible. From you we are born, and when we die, to you we will return. You are fierce and destructive, as well as creative. I fear and admire your strength and power. I offer this bread made with grain taken from your breast. As you have given to me, may I freely give back to you.”
I reach over and place the bread in the ditch behind the altar.
“Mistress of evolution, sister and daughter of Mother Earth. You shape and form who I am and what behavior I am capable of. I am at your mercy. You work to co-create future life forms through me and my people, and I am honored, bewildered, and amazed at the process. Accept this offering as my way to honor you.”
The second half of the bread falls easily on top of the other in the ditch behind the altar. It is time to re-create the cosmos as seen by my indo-european ancestors. This is the part of the ritual that I love best because it reminds me how much of the world is dark and mysterious and made of something other than myself. The water, tree, and fire are the gates of my cosmology. They are familiar things and yet so much more than just symbols. I realize that as I acknowledge them, they will become something other.
After a deep breath I grab the small silver coin out of my pile of offerings and rise stiffly to my feet. I can feel how much canoeing down the river has stressed my back and legs as I walk over to the bank.
“River that flows to the underworld where my ancestors live, take this silver gift as a way for me to thank you for your service as a doorway and gate for my beloved dead to join me today.”
I must admit the sound of the coin plonking noisily into the water is quite satisfying. I think this is the reason why I can’t resist dropping stones into water at every opportunity.
I cup my hands and lift out some water and walk to the cottonwood tree that shades my altar area. I pour it at the roots of the tree and am rewarded with another satisfying sound of moving water. There is a sparrow in the branch above me, and she seems entranced by what this silly human is doing.
“Great tree that spans the worlds, whose roots reach deep into the underworld, whose trunk spans my world and the world of my animal and plant family, whose branches reach high into the world of the Gods, I pray you will accept this offering as my thanks as acting as a gateway for my neighbors and companions. May the nature spirits of this place and land join me here through your doorway.”
I walk back to the front of the stone altar. The three tea lights have fires happily dancing in the shade of the tree. I resume my seat. I pull out the lavender oil I have brought, and careful not to put my fires out, place a small drop into each tea light. I am instantly rewarded with a curl of dark black smoke and the sharp, sweet scent of the small purple flowers that have produced the oil.
“Creature of fire, I give this offering as my way to thank you. You act as the doorway through which the Theoi might come to join me here today. I pray that my gift is acceptable to you.”
I pull out the container that holds the Greek honey yogurt. This is the offering that I have found Hermes to enjoy the most. I have been surprised at how quickly he and I have formed a bond. I know that I have a rather unhealthy attraction to the trickster Gods, but he has yet to play any tricks on me, and I am grateful. Maybe he has been too busy in protecting thieves, travelers, and businesses around the world to get to me with a trick. Despite his very active work schedule, he has always been kind enough to come to help when I call. He most definitely is not a bored God. I take a moment to picture his dark curly hair and handsome, youthful face. He always dresses in jeans and a t-shirt. In my mind’s eye, he walks toward the fire. He flashes a rakish grin as I smile back. I know that for many people the Gods appear in long white togas, or other ancient garb, but they come to me dressed in modern attire. I guess keeping up with the fashions of the day isn’t too hard to do when you are incorporeal.
“Swift foot massager of the Gods, protector of thieves, travelers, flocks, and herds; accept this offering as way to please, honor and feed you.”
I tip the tub over the ditch and watch the sticky yogurt glop out in one huge plop. This makes me giggle a little and I see Hermes smiling as well.
“Please, you have always been kind enough to help me in the past, and I need your help again. I ask that you go the gates of the river, tree, and fire to amplify my voice through the worlds to my kindred. Hermes please open the doors and call to my dead, the spirits of this land, and to the Gods and Goddesses who wish to join me by my fire to create community with me.”
I take a moment to think about my life and what has gone into making it possible. All the tiny shifts in environments that made my ancestors leave Africa; the Bedouin tribes that migrated from Iran up into Russia, taking their sun God with them to share with the Russ; the small migration that eventually brought my family here to the states; these are the things that have made my life possible. I grab the small container with golden, sticky honey, and twist the lid off with a metallic swirl sound.
“Ancestors, you who made sacrifices that helped to keep our line going, I stand on your shoulders and am supported by your hard work and lives. You are part of me, even the bastards amongst you, because I wouldn’t be who I am without your lives and deaths. I offer this to those of you who fought in wars and to those of you who raised children and worked farms. I offer this to you who worked in factories and in villages around the world. To those hunter gathers who first started this whole thing called community, I offer this. May this sweet honey bless, feed, and honor you and your gifts to me. Ancestors accept my sacrifice.”
“Nature spirits of this land and of this place. I hope that I have been a good neighbor to you. I know that my kind and yours have not always had the best of relationships, but I want to work on fixing that between you and me. I wish to work in partnership with you and to renew the old contracts in which we give and take as each other needs. Nature Spirits accept this sacrifice made by your bee’s hands.”
“Shining Ones, Gods and Goddesses worthy of worship, I ask that you join me by the fire that we may continue to grow our relationship and community. I pray that this honey will bless, honor, and feed you. I give to you as my guests and wish you comfort while spending time with me. Shining Ones accept this sacrifice.”
It takes longer than I like for the honey to pour despite it being very runny due to the heat of the day. I take my index finger and rub the inside of the jar to help push the amber liquid out. Once most of it has fallen into the ditch I place the jar next to the altar and suck my finger clean.
“I suppose it is proper that you share the same as what you offer us.” I turn to look past the fire and see her standing there in her power suit and Hillary haircut. The gorgon head design on her briefcase helps me to identify who she is.
“G’afternoon Lady Athena. I like your suit,” I say, wishing I could pull the power suit look off without looking like a child playing dress up.
She smiles and adjusts the jacket as she sets her briefcase down next the fire.
“Thanks for letting me be me. You have no idea how many followers of mine don’t want me to change beyond the white dress toga. While I don’t mind too terribly much to show up they way they want me to, it is what is polite after all, but that seriously is not near as practical in this day and age as my suit. Have you ever tried to negotiate a peace treaty or run a government in this society in a toga? Trust me it doesn’t work as well as a well tailored jacket.”
I look at her and smile, “So you’re still helping politicians run society then?”
“I invented democracy, do you really think I’d leave it to its own devices?” she says in a huffy tone. “Although, this isn’t exactly the same thing as what I started back in the day. You humans do tend to take our ideas and run amok. Although, I will admit there have been some decent improvements.”
I can’t help but ask, “Does it bother you that we do that? Humans, I mean? That we take your ideas and change them to suit what we want?”
She cocks her head to the side in thought for a moment and then answers, “No, I guess not. I think you do good things with what we give you, most of the time at least. We can’t be with you all the time or know everything that is going to happen or work in the long run. It is good that you can tailor the ideas to fit your needs. We Gods and you humans work together most of the time, although you lot don’t seem to think of us as part of the action as much anymore. I do wish more of you would listen to some of my advice on how to run things, and then maybe you wouldn’t be in some of the very serious positions that your societies have created.”
“Does it bother you that we don’t acknowledge or worship you as a society anymore?”
She shakes her head and laughs, “I like it when you do, but it doesn’t affect me too much when you don’t. I’m a primal force of nature that you anthropomorphize as a way to understand and so you can interact with me. It helps me to know how to communicate with you better when there are more of you interacting with me, but it hardly affects me as a whole. I don’t need you the way you might need me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy your company.”
“Is it because we don’t listen to you that there is evil in the world?” I ask. I must admit that it is a question that has long bothered me.
“No, sweetie,” she shakes her head, “There is evil because your job, as well as mine, is to take chaos and to form order from it. That process has side effects and evil is one of them.”
“The ideas that we create as ways to make order sometimes turn dark, or we become too obsessed with order for our own lives, and not for lives of those around us. That selfishness is what feeds evil in the world most of the time. Or at least that has been my experience. Some of my family might disagree and say something else causes it, but we Gods are not always above doing wrong actions,” she said, blushing slightly. “Your stories about us Gods are full of times we didn’t do exactly what is right or proper. Although, a lot of those are cultural by-products more than any real action we Gods took. I think that you should realize what your stories really are. Your stories are a way to make order out of chaos as well. Powerful ways, I might add. I think you as a society have forgotten how much a story can change the world. It wasn’t too long ago when a story called ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ set a fire in your nation.”
I nod my head, thinking back to the fire that was the civil war.
“Your television and movies have largely taken the place of theater, but Dionysus is still very much present in them, as is his power...and sometimes his madness. There is a reason that many governments have turned to story telling and propaganda to push their people in directions they may not otherwise have been willing to go. It isn’t only wine that can make you drunk, you can become drunk on feelings that are elicited through drama. You crave powerful feeling in ways you can’t seem to understand, and seek them out in your stories. I would also add that you can become addicted to that aspect of theater easy enough and it can feed into a sense of despair when there is no need to be sad, as well as give joy when you should be wary of what is happening to your society.”
I feel a soft breeze and watch the candle light flicker and I know someone else is coming.
“It would appear my Uncle wishes to have a word with you,” she says as she rises to her feet and picks up her gorgon briefcase. “It has been nice to chat again, and next time don’t take a year to say, ‘hi.’ I’d much rather do this more often,” she says with a grin as she fades into the background and I see nothing but the tree line before me.
“So, child, have you been working on the task I have given you?” booms the deep voice of a tall, dark bearded, man. He is so tall that I have to crane my neck straight up to see him and I can feel power radiating off of him. He is dressed in a casual suit, but it is dark colors that make his skin seem paler than it is.
I nod my head, “Yes, Lord Hades, I have been working toward the goal you gave me. I am working on learning how best to serves those who are dying, and how to help them transition as peacefully as possible.”
“Good, good,” he smiles and wraps his long arms around my shoulders for a hug. “There was a time when there were so many more of you to help those who are about to come to my realm. It has made me sad to see you shrink in numbers. No one should die without a guide.”
‘What happens when we die?” I ask, know what he will reply, because he always gives me the same answer.
“Trade secrets child! Trade secrets. But, would it help to quiet your questions if I told you what happens to your body?” he asks
“I think I know, but sure, I’d love to hear what you have to say,” I reply.
He sits down on a log near by and smiles like I am child and that he is inviting me to share in a bedtime story. “Well, you already know that your body will eventually break down, despite your people’s need to pump all kinds of crap into your dead to try and stop it. As your body break down the part are eaten by plant roots and bugs of various kinds. The molecules of your body become part of the earth again, most of time at least. Sometimes you get the whole mummy thing, but I think it has, actually, had the opposite effect than what the Egyptians imagined, because it as your body breaks down that the energy and molecules that were part of you begin to merge with other still living matter. Your many parts scatter until you are spread so thin that you become something else entirely.”
“But what about a soul?” I ask, “Does that go to you? Does it even exist outside of the body?”
He just smiles at me and shakes his head, “Only the dead know that, and I’d hate to take the surprise away. What is it you young ones say? Spoilers? Yes, I think that’s it. Spoilers.”
I laugh, because it is so fun to hear such words coming from him. I crawl into his lap and lay my head against his chest. He never seems to mind my tendency to treat him such familiarity. I don’t know if it is because so many people are afraid of him, and he is happy to have someone like me who isn’t afraid, or if he is just plain kind and open for affection.
“Or is it because eventually you all come to me in the end, and I accept all of you; for who you are, and what you are,” he says, reading my mind. “ I don’t discriminate, and willingly open my arms to you, even if you don’t always want to accept my embrace.”
I nod and smile as I take a moment to just sit with him.
“Its hard when we can no longer interact physically with our loved ones. I think that makes us resentful and we blame you for our pain,” I say.
“True,” he nods, “and I am big enough to handle that without returning the hard feelings. It is good for you to explore your feelings and know that what you feel is not good, bad, wrong or right. Feelings are as they are, it is what you do with then that matters. Is it right to force a person to suffer from medical procedure after medical procedure in an effort to stop my servant Thanatos’ hand? Is it not better to help the person to be at peace for those last few months or days?”
“I think we as a people are slowly coming to the same conclusion,” I nod. “I think that is why hospice and other services like that are slowly growing.”
“With your numbers growing to such huge numbers I think you will be forced to realize that I serve to create order just as much as any other God. Without me and my servants there would be chaos. As all thing must have a beginning, they must also have an ending,” he says as he slowly and gently places me back down off his lap. “It is time child to end this rite,” and with that he also fades into the tree line and I find myself sitting in front of the fire, stiff because I actually haven’t been moving at all this whole time.
I take up a small vial of Ouzo and pull the cork off with a loud pop.
“I thank you all for the gifts you give me. I thank you for your presence in my life and I hope that we will continue to grow in relationship and community,” and with these words I pour the Ouzo out over the bread and other offerings in the ditch.
“Hermes, I thank you for you help. Please escort my kindred back to their worlds and may the gates be closed.”
I take a deep breath and allow the feeling of connection to ease and I feel Hermes depart. I stand up and stretch, my stiff back screaming from the hard work of rowing combined with a long period of sitting too still. I know I am not going to enjoy the rowing that will take me down the river to where the canoe owner is waiting to pick me and boat up, but I might just let the flow of the river take me most of the way. I smile at that thought and lean forward to touch the ground, feeling the pull in the back of my thighs.
“Thank you Mother Earth, and with this, this rite is done.”
I blow out the candles and let them cool while I gather my stuff back into my bag and re-load the canoe. I gather the tea lights up and pull out my oar from behind the bench as i push the boat back out off the shore and climb in for the ride home.