Tag Archives: wicca

Thoughts on “The Two Trees” by William Butler Yeats

Picasso: Two Trees

Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with merry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quiet in the night;
The shaking of its leafy head
Has given the waves their melody,
And made my lips and music wed,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee.
There the Loves a circle go,
The flaming circle of our days,
Gyring, spiring to and fro
In those great ignorant leafy ways;
Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the wingèd sandals dart,
Thine eyes grow full of tender care:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.

Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The demons, with their subtle guile,
Lift up before us when they pass,
Or only gaze a little while;
For there a fatal image grows
That the stormy night receives,
Roots half hidden under snows,
Broken boughs and blackened leaves.
For all things turn to barrenness
In the dim glass the demons hold,
The glass of outer weariness,
Made when God slept in times of old.
There, through the broken branches, go
The ravens of unresting thought;
Flying, crying, to and fro,
Cruel claw and hungry throat,
Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And shake their ragged wings; alas!
Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Gaze no more in the bitter glass.

According to the Eden myth, there were two trees in the Garden: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Life. In this poem, Yeats uses these two trees as symbols for the creative and the mortal aspects of the human psyche, respectively. The first stanza corresponds with the Tree of Knowledge, and the second stanza corresponds to the Tree of Life.

While the story of eating from the Tree of Knowledge is often interpreted as something negative, a rebellion and fall from grace, Yeats does not seem to see it this way. For Yeats, knowledge of good and evil is essentially what makes us godlike, and the true mystical power of god is the power to create. The first stanza is filled with imagery of growth and flowering, which symbolizes the blossoming of the creative spirit in an individual. He encourages the reader to “gaze in thine own heart,” because that is where the “holy tree” of creativity is rooted, within the deeper self.

Other metaphors that Yeats uses in the first stanza are music and circles. Music is a fairly standard metaphor for poetry, which Yeats attributes to the eating of the fruit from the first tree. The circle conjures images of pagan rituals, most likely Druid or Wiccan, but possibly also of the Golden Dawn. The circles, spirals, and gyres evoke a sense of ritual performed within a circle around a fire. Yeats would have likely believed that the development of spiritual and occult arts was a result of the symbolic eating from the Tree of Knowledge.

And this brings us to the second stanza, and the Tree of Life. It is important to keep in mind that the archetypal humans did not eat of this tree, and as such are destined to wither and die. The effects of this tree are manifested on the outside of a person, as opposed to the Tree of Knowledge which is internal. Hence the demons hold up “the bitter glass,” which is a mirror. Gazing in to it, one becomes aware of aging, of mortality, of impending death. All the symbols that Yeats uses in the second stanza—night, snow, broken boughs, blackened leaves, barrenness, ravens—are all associated with death.

So what is the larger message that Yeats is trying to convey here? It seems to me that he is encouraging us to shift our focus from our outer selves, away from the flesh and our mortality, and instead focus on the inner self, the spirit, the divine essence within all of us. We will die, that is inevitable; but we do not have to spend our lives worrying about getting old and dying. We should live full, spiritual, and creative lives, building loving relationships with others, and creating beauty for future generations.

Thanks for taking the time to read my reflections, and as always, please feel free to share yours in the comment area below. Cheers!

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“Beltane” by Ian Anderson

Image Source: YouTube

Since today is Beltane, I decided to listen to Jethro Tull’s “Songs from the Wood” on my run. Since it is the extended remastered version, it includes the song “Beltane,” appropriate for today. For today’s post, I decided to analyze the lyrics as a poem. For those who are unfamiliar, here is the text:

Have you ever stood in the April wood
And called the new year in?
While the phantoms of three thousand years fly
As the dead leaves spin?
There’s a snap in the grass behind your feet
And a tap upon your shoulder.
And the thin wind crawls along your neck
It’s just the old gods getting older.
And the kestrel drops like a fall of shot and
The red cloud hanging high
Come a Beltane.

Have you ever loved a lover of the old elastic truth?
And doted on the daughter in the ministry of youth?
Thrust your head between the breasts of the fertile innocent.
And taken up the cause of love, for the sake of argument.
Or while the kisses drop like a fall of shot
From soft lips in the rain
Come a Beltane.

Happy old new year to you and yours.
The sun’s up for one more day, to be sure.
Play it out gladly, for your card’s marked again.

Have you walked around your parks and towns so knife-edged orderly?
While the fires are burned on the hills upturned
In far-off wild country.
And felt the chill on your window sill
As the green man comes around.
With his walking cane of sweet hazel brings it crashing down.
Sends your knuckles white as the thin stick bites.
Well, it’s just your groaning pains.
Come a Beltane.

Here is a little background information on Beltane.

Beltane was one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals: Samhain (~1 November), Imbolc (~1 February), Beltane (~1 May), and Lughnasadh (~1 August). Beltane marked the beginning of the pastoral summer season, when livestock were driven out to the summer pastures. Rituals were held at that time to protect them from harm, both natural and supernatural, and this mainly involved the “symbolic use of fire”. There were also rituals to protect crops, dairy products and people, and to encourage growth. The aos sí (often referred to as spirits or fairies) were thought to be especially active at Beltane (as at Samhain) and the goal of many Beltane rituals was to appease them. Most scholars see the aos sí as remnants of the pagan gods and nature spirits. Beltaine was a “spring time festival of optimism” during which “fertility ritual again was important, perhaps connecting with the waxing power of the sun”.

Wiccans use the name Beltane or Beltain for their May Day celebrations. It is one of the yearly Sabbats of the Wheel of the Year, following Ostara and preceding Midsummer. Unlike Celtic Reconstructionism, Wicca is syncretic and melds practices from many different cultures. In general, the Wiccan Beltane is more akin to the Germanic/English May Day festival, both in its significance (focusing on fertility) and its rituals (such as maypole dancing). Some Wiccans enact a ritual union of the May Lord and May Lady.

Source: Wikipedia)

OK, now we will look at the poem.

In the first stanza, Anderson evokes a pastoral setting that is on the threshold of seasonal change. But there is some interesting symbolism hidden in here which I feel is a reference to the Yeats’ great occult poem, “The Second Coming.” Anderson’s image of the dead leaves spinning calls to mind the gyres in Yeats’ poem, and the kestrel is a type of falcon, which strengthens the connection to the opening lines of “The Second Coming.”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

The old gods are described as getting older, possibly symbolizing the readiness for rebirth.

In the second stanza, Anderson incorporates the sexual and fertility symbolism associated with Beltane. He expresses the concept of sympathetic magic, where human sexuality and fertility is connected with the fertility of the earth.

The third stanza celebrates the dawn of the new year, and acknowledges the importance of the sun in the continuation of life.

The final stanza forms a unique bridge between the old and the modern, between the wild and the “civilized.” We are presented with images of manicured parks, of towns built in a sterile and uniform fashion. But in the far-off wild country, fires are burning and the green man is ready to strike with his cane, causing our fragile construct of a world to collapse. I see the fire as symbolic of the deep desire to reject the industrial world that we have built and return to a more stable and sustainable way of life in accordance with Nature. And the green man is the embodiment of Nature. Ultimately, if we do not change our ways, the green man will smite us and we will be forced to return to our primal state.

Anyway, thanks for stopping by. If you celebrate, I hope you and yours have a very merry Beltane!

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“Sonnet 12: When I do count the clock that tells the time” by William Shakespeare – Reference to the John Barleycorn Myth

Barleycorn

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls all silver’d o’er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defense
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

This sonnet is another one of the “fair youth” poems where Shakespeare entreats an unnamed young man to fulfill his duty by procreating and becoming a father and husband. Most of the metaphors in this poem employ images of nature to contrast youth and old age, such as “brave day” and “hideous night,” or the barren trees as opposed to the leafy, shade-giving ones. But there is one symbol that Shakespeare uses this poem that I found particularly interesting: barley.

Barley is not overtly mentioned in this sonnet, but it is implied in the following two lines.

And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,

Barley was an important crop in the British Isles. So much so that it became associated with the resurrection myth of John Barleycorn. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this myth, here is a short summary.

John Barleycorn is a British folksong. The character of John Barleycorn in the song is a personification of the important cereal crop barley and of the alcoholic beverages made from it, beer and whisky. In the song, John Barleycorn is represented as suffering attacks, death and indignities that correspond to the various stages of barley cultivation, such as reaping and malting.

Kathleen Herbert draws a link between the mythical figure Beowa (a figure stemming from Anglo-Saxon paganism that appears in early Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies whose name means “barley”) and the figure of John Barleycorn. Herbert says that Beowa and Barleycorn are one and the same, noting that the folksong details the suffering, death, and resurrection of Barleycorn, yet also celebrates the “reviving effects of drinking his blood.”

The idea of a grain god who dies, is buried, and is reborn as the current year’s crop dates back at least to dynastic Egyptian myths of the god Osiris. In the Coffin Texts, the deceased person states: “I am Osiris. I have come forth and entered into thee, I have flourished in thee, I have grown in thee, I have fallen into thee, I have fallen on my side. The gods live by me. I live and grow as Neper [Corn], whom the august gods bring forth that I may cover Geb [the earth], whether I be alive or dead. I am barley, I am not destroyed…” Elsewhere in the Coffin Texts, the formula of Becoming Barley of Lower Egypt states that the deceased “is this bush of life [barley] which went forth from Osiris to grow on the ribs of Osiris and to nourish the common people, which makes the gods divine and spiritualizes the spirits…”

(Source: Wikipedia)

So essentially, Shakespeare is using the resurrection myth popular in England to encourage the young man to have children. Just as the grain god is reborn through the burial (planting) of the seed, so must humans sow the seeds of rebirth to continue the cycle of life, both physically and spiritually.

I have to say that I really like this sonnet, much more so than the previous eleven, mainly because of Shakespeare’s use of folklore and mythology. To conclude, I will add a musical interpretation of the John Barleycorn myth that is one of my all-time favorites. Enjoy, and thanks for stopping by.

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“The Song of the Old Mother” by William Butler Yeats

Source: BBC

Source: BBC

Since today is the Winter Solstice, I thought this would be the perfect poem to read and contemplate.

I rise in the dawn, and I kneel and blow
Till the seed of the fire flicker and glow;
And then I must scrub and bake and sweep
Till stars are beginning to blink and peep;
And the young lie long and dream in their bed
Of the matching of ribbons for bosom and head,
And their days go over in idleness,
And they sigh if the wind but lift a tress:
While I must work because I am old,
And the seed of the fire gets feeble and cold.

As the cycle of the year reaches the longest night and darkness dominates, the Goddess is manifest as the Crone, or the old mother. All the world and all of creation sleeps through the long winter night, waiting to be reborn. The Crone rises at dawn to kindle the “seed of the fire,” symbolizing the beginning of a new cycle and the rebirth of light.

The poem is composed of five couplets, or ten lines. As an initiate into the Golden Dawn, Yeats would have been aware of the mystical significance of the number ten, particularly in regard to the kabbalistic Tree of Life. According to kabbalah, all existence is formed from the ten sefirot. Because this poem is comprised of ten lines, Yeats was implying that the rebirth of the Goddess and the rebirth of light correlates with the rebirth of all existence, that all of creation is rekindled on the Winter Solstice.

The last thing I would like to point out regarding this poem is the couplet that structurally forms the very center of the poem (lines 5 and 6). I see two meanings here. The surface meaning is that humanity and Nature are both at rest, sleeping through the long night. Note that bed refers to both a place of rest for a person as well as the soil in a garden, from which new life will grow in the spring. But this couplet also symbolizes the two other forms of the Goddess: the Maiden and the Mother. In the spring, the Goddess is reborn as the Maiden and will be adorned with the colorful ribbons symbolic of spring.

On this longest night of the year, may the light be rekindled within you and may it burn brightly throughout the coming year. Blessed be!

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“A Prayer in Spring” by Robert Frost

Maypole: Source - Wikipedia

Maypole: Source – Wikipedia

It’s May 1, so for those of you who celebrate, I wish you a blessed Beltane.

I wanted to choose a poem that was appropriate for the day, and this one seems to express the essence of May Day.

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.

Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.

And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid air stands still.

For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfill.

While Frost is communicating with the male deity, he clearly feels a connection to Nature and is in touch with the sacred act of regeneration and rebirth. Although it seems a little clichéd nowadays, he incorporates imagery of “the birds and the bees” to emphasize the sexual essence of spring. I personally really liked how he describes the hummingbird thrusting the phallic bill into the feminine blossom. That is by far the best metaphor in the poem.

What makes this poem work, though, is the fact that it is a celebration, and the feeling of joy, love, and elation really comes across when you read it. I could feel the poet’s passion which he sees mirrored in Nature. And rightfully so, Frost acknowledges that the love he is witnessing and feeling comes from a divine source and that the act of procreation is truly a holy act.

Thanks for stopping by and may your day be filled with blessings and happiness.

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Naked Came the Leaf Peeper

NakedLeafPeeperAsheville, NC is a quirky place, to say the least. There is a saying here: “If you’re too weird for Asheville, you’re too weird.” But its home for me and I love it here. The unique blend of artists, musicians, writers, spiritual seekers, and fringe people of all sorts nestled within the Blue Ridge Mountains makes this the ideal place for me to live.

For the holidays, I was given a gift certificate to Malaprop’s, a local independent bookstore that I love to support. I knew before going there that I wanted to get a copy of Naked Came the Leaf Peeper. I had seen it on display for a while and it has been on my wish list. It is a collaborative work featuring twelve local Asheville writers each contributing a chapter.

The book is a riot! I burst out laughing multiple times as I was reading. Some of the scenes are so over-the-top that, even if you are unfamiliar with Asheville, you will still find them hysterical. For example, there is a scene where a vehicle gets stopped for reckless driving, and it is discovered that the woman driver is naked and shaving herself as her ex-husband tries to steer. And the craziest thing is, if you live in Asheville, it doesn’t seem that far-fetched.

So at this point, you may be wondering what it’s like in Asheville. Here is a quote that will give you an idea.

J.D worked his way downtown, pausing at a light straight across from the Asheville Civic Center so a man and his llama could cross the street in front of him.

A man and his llama?

J.D. turned off his auto-pilot and really looked around for the first time. There were llamas everywhere. Coming and going from the convention center, walking up and down the sidewalk, sitting on benches and parked cars. In the little park at the end of Broadway, hippies and llamas danced in a drum circle. There was even a llama standing with a tip bag tied around its neck while its owner played a guitar outside Malaprop’s Bookstore.

(p. 116)

So while this is a little bit exaggerated for humor’s sake, it’s not far from the truth. You’ll see all kinds of people with animals downtown, and there are always street musicians and people dancing around in drum circles. True story—I used to own an ice cream shop here in Asheville. One day a person came in with a goat on a leash and asked if it was OK to bring his goat in. I told him no, that the goat would have to wait outside. He seemed hurt. I couldn’t help wondering about relationship between him and his goat.

I had some neighbors once who told me that their friends would not come into Asheville because there were too many “wiggins.” It took me a few minutes to realize that he meant wiccans. Yeah, there is definitely a strong earth-based religious community here and the book includes a nod to them with a pretty accurate depiction of a pagan gathering in downtown.

The drummers began to beat their drums slowly, their rhythm increasing as Rowena’s voice grew louder, directing listeners to connect with the Divine within and to the spirits of the land, water, and sky. She called out to the spirits dwelling inside the rock and soil that formed the mountains visible in every direction; she called out to the spirits living in the rivers and springs that nourished the soil, the plants and the animals that drank from them; she called out to the spirits dwelling among the flowers and trees that also nurtured life and brought beauty and comfort. Holding a crystal wand in her hand, Rowena traced a spiraling pattern from above her head to the ground at her feet. She spoke to the dead, honoring those who had come before, and invited them to the circle, too. She undid the boundaries between the living and the dead, the animate and the inanimate, the earth and the cosmos. All were welcome at the gathering.

(pp. 169 – 170)

I don’t want to give away too much, but I’ll say that the rest of the book is filled with witty satire, parody, social commentary, literary allusions, and such. While the story is fictional, the depictions of Asheville and the surrounding counties are pretty accurate. I can also say that many of the characters in the book remind me of people I’ve met here over the years, from the conservative to the quirky to the just plain weird.

Yeah, I live in a weird city, but I love it. Honestly, I can’t imagine living anywhere else. And on that note…

Forget the Keep Asheville Weird bumper stickers. Asheville was weird enough as is.

(p. 116)

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“To an Isle in the Water” by William Butler Yeats

WBYeatsI read this poem twice, even though I gleaned the meaning of it upon the first reading. I just enjoyed it and wanted to read it again.

Shy one, shy one,
Shy one of my heart,
She moves in the firelight
Pensively apart.

 She carries in the dishes,
And lays them in a row.
To an isle in the water
With her would I go.

She carries in the candles,
And lights the curtained room,
Shy in the doorway
And shy in the gloom;

And shy as a rabbit,
Helpful and shy.
To an isle in the water
With her would I fly.

Avalon

Voyage of King Arthur and Morgan Le Fay to the Isle of Avalon by Frank William Warwick Topham
(source Wikipedia)

I feel confident that the “isle in the water” is a reference to Avalon. Yeats was fascinated with legends, myths, and the occult, so it stands to reason that he would incorporate one of the most recognizable symbols of the mystical realm into his poem.

According to the legend of Arthur, Morgan Le Fey brought King Arthur to Avalon to recover from his wounds. Avalon was also where Excalibur was forged.

The shy woman in the poem appears to be a pagan priestess. She is described as working by firelight, laying out dishes (which might contain various herbs or incense), and of lighting candles in a curtained room. The actions conjure images of preparation for a ritual. The speaker, whom I assume to be Yeats, appears passive, almost an observer or possibly a student. My guess is that he is describing an experience where a priestess is allowing him to participate in a ritual and Yeats is eagerly anticipating his glimpse of the magical island that exists beyond the mists.

As far as a Yeats poem goes, this one is fairly easy to interpret. I suspect that is because he was still young and a novice in the occult arts (the poem was written in 1889, which would have made him about 24 at the time). Certainly, his later poems are more arcane and challenging. Still, I enjoyed this poem a lot. It just goes to prove that a poem does not need to be difficult to understand for it to be good.

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