,The tale of the three Magi who gazed into the heavens and discovered a 'new star', following that star for hundreds of miles to a cave to pay homage to the Divine Child is a powerful one. For children, the idea that the Three Kings re-enact this amazing journey each Yuletide season in order to visit every home, leaving chocolates, money, oranges and/or other gifts in their shoes makes Twelfth Night the occasion of another magical visitation. (Many leave carrots for the camels as well as a dish of water for them, recognising their incredible labours on this night.)
Father Christmas, the Three Kings and the Tooth Fairy are among the most beloved magical 'visitors' in a child's life. Those who 'outgrow' these symbols of magic may pride themselves on their maturity but I rather pity them. As I told a child who related the mockery of her classmates to me, 'Well, if they don't believe in Santa Claus, I very much doubt he will fill THEIR stockings again!' Like the land of 'make-believe', we are required to suspend our own disbelief in order to pass through the gates, and without our contributions to the landscape, that land will be barren and uninhabited.
I prefer to populate the landscape of my universe with as many magical creatures as possible. This brings me to the age-old subject of Faith.
Spiritual belief is as much a matter of Faith as logic. Without both, the spiritual landscape will be rather barren. We are as much creatures of logic as of faith. This is why we are compelled to base some of our religious or spiritual beliefs on logic and/or science. On the other hand, Faith is something that transcends logic and operates outside its limits. That is why we are called upon to make a 'leap of Faith' where spiritual matters are concerned. That leap need not be over a treacherous chasm or abyss, but the nature of the space over which we leap is not relevant to the destination. We must have the courage to make that leap if we wish to reach the other side.
In Northern mythology, the Rainbow Bridge Bifrost represents the 'leap of Faith'. Many traditions include a bridge of this nature, as thin and sharp as a 'knife's edge', but a bridge that will bring the traveler to the other side at last, provided he/she has the courage and determination to keep walking. Look down if you will, but do not be paralysed or utterly undone by the sight. Most people are advised to keep their eyes (and spirits) firmly directed to the goal. Perhaps it is only the greatest prophets and seers who are able to witness all that lies in the dimension between heaven and earth, or between this reality and the other.
As for that other reality, we cannot live perpetually in that place, but must be disciplined enough to live in this reality as well, committing ourselves sufficiently to it to provide for our needs and the needs of others. The most 'balanced' human being, I believe, is the one who can spend time both in this realm and the other, whether or not that other realm is named 'Imagination', 'Creativity', 'Religion' or 'the Path to Heaven'. Our spiritual energy is derived from that other realm, but the energy must be channeled into THIS life and this reality. Otherwise, its purpose is lost.
For a Muslim, the time spent on the prayer rug is time spent in that other realm. 'Qurbatan ilallah' or 'nearness to God' is the term that reflects this 'sacred space/time'. A Catholic or Buddhist may use a string of beads as a 'ladder to Heaven' and Muslims actually use a tasbih ('a reminder' in the form of a string of beads) in the same fashion. The idea of the prayer rug, however, appeals to me immensely.
The pagan creates a sacred circle, often with candles and symbols in each of the four quarters. The prayer rug or musalah achieves the same result. When salat (prayer) ends, the rug is folded or rolled up and put away, for it is a sacred space and thus should not be used as an ordinary carpet or rug would be used.
Even some one who does not practice Islam must be enraptured by the sight of an exquisite silk rug with the pattern of the Tree of Life in a mihrab (sacred arch). This ancient pattern embodies many universal symbols dealing with the relationship between Heaven and Earth, God and Human. The Tree is the ladder that joins Heaven and Earth. Branches of the Tree represent different aspects of existence or different stages of enlightenment, depending on the tradition one follows. In some traditions (including Christianity), the Tree of Life and Death is the symbol of the Sacrificed God, and that which unites Life and Death in the form of Rebirth. The Vine that must be cut in order to live again is an ancient Dionysian symbol, among others.
The mihrab or arch is the signpost that directs the worshipper to Makkah. In every mosque, the mihrab faces Makkah. Makkah is the ultimate sacred space for the Muslim and is the destination of the ultimate earthly pilgrimage.
I believe that the mihrab is far more than an indication of 'qibla' or direction of prayer. It is the window through which the soul can catch a glimpse of the Divine.
It is interesting to note that ancient myths of Canaan speak of the abode of Gods as a dwelling with windows that must be opened in order to allow rain and sustenance to reach humanity. One of the ancient tales about Ba'al or the 'Lord' relates to his fear of windows. In his first house, he refused to build any windows, for fear that his rival Mot ('Death') would enter through the window to kidnap his wives and daughters! By denying that potential access to his rival, however, he denied himself any connection with Earth and his own worshippers. The Earth could not survive without life-giving rain. Ba'al was forced to allow windows to be added to his dwelling, else he would perish in a prison of his own making.
There is a spiritual lesson here for every one.
Incidentally, neither Ba'al nor Mot were the Supreme Deity. El had power over both, and El referred to both Ba'al and Mot as 'His Beloved'. Titles given to both were 'the Beloved of El'. Death, therefore, was not perceived as a monster until later, when the myths began to reflect the beliefs of invaders who did not accept that Sky and Earth should be twin parts of a whole, but who sought to claim precedence for Life over Death and created the image of a 'Sky God' who would subjugate all other powers and be forever in the ascendant.
This contradicts reality, of course. In the original myths, Mot and Ba'al were equal in power and would fight one another for supremacy in ritual fashion. When vanquished, Mot would be 'winnowed' like the grain and would become bread for humanity. When victorious, Ba'al would be forced to visit the Underworld or womb of the Earth, to spend a season there before emerging again on the shoulders of the Sun. In this mythology, the Sun was female, by the way. This vision of a strong, powerful female who carries the corpse of the male upon her shoulders reminds one of the tales of the Northern valkyrie Brunnhilde. Shapash, the Sun, in fact, by bringing the body of Ba'al from the Underworld, acted as Saviour, and enabled his rebirth.
I see that my ramblings have brought me quite a distance from Twelfth Night to the ancient tale of Ba'al! That is the prerogative of a blog writer, however. There is no regulation or literary convention that forces me to remain 'on target'. If no one else reads this entry, at least I have had the enjoyment of revisiting old myths and traditions... I hope that some one else might find them as interesting as I do, but if not, I make no apologies. After all, is not 'writer satisfaction' not part of the purpose of a blog?
I am going to return to the traditions of Twelfth Night, however, as today marks the Festival of the Epiphany, at least for the Western Church.
Another old tradition of Twelfth Night is a Cake with a bean hidden in it. The person who finds the Bean becomes 'King/Queen of the Bean' and chooses a consort blindfolded. All persons of the opposite gender form a circle and begin to dance round the blindfolded monarch who reaches out to one when inspired to do so, thereby allowing 'Chance' to preside where the sacred marriage is concerned.
In some traditions, the King/Queen of the Bean will sit upon a throne and give commands to all his/her subjects. Often these commands involve the performance of an absurd act. In other traditions, the King/Queen is given a special gift... In most traditions, the primary duty of the King or Queen is to give the next Twelfth Night party.
In our home, Twelfth Night was the occasion of the 'Children's Party'. It was the only time when we were allowed to invite other children to our house for a celebration. I have to confess that my sister and I never invited any other girls to the house, because we made the Twelfth Night party into a formal 'Dinner Dance' affair and invited only boys in order to give ourselves a good and constant selection of dancing partners. Each boy was required to dress formally and bring flowers or a 'corsage'. Looking back on this, I am rather amazed that any boy would attend! The fact that they came to our party every year is even more amazing. I doubt they ever danced on any other occasion but we taught them ballroom dances and forced them to partner us until midnight. I can remember that I wore out a new pair of dancing slippers in a single evening,
and the dancing was relentless.
(How many boys actually enjoy dancing? Few, I suspect. Our friends probably enjoyed the 'King of the Bean' antics more than the dance programme.)
I do not know what our friends really thought of these evenings or if they remember them half as fondly as I do. I did speak to them years later about our Twelfth Night parties and they claimed they had enjoyed them but that may have been nothing more than courtesy or kindness on their part. I know their favourite festival with us was our annual Harvest Moon festival when we paraded through the quiet village streets with lanterns and chanting, much to the bewilderment of the old people who dominated the community. The best year, one friend declared, was the year that a candle set a lantern aflame, and we had to improvise quickly and pretend that a bonfire was a scheduled part of the ritual. Were we eccentric adolescents or were we juvenile delinquents? Being 'gifted' unfortunately made us immune to many of the judgements that would have been rendered otherwise by society. I obviously was not much of a 'follower' even then but I hope I require a much higher standard of behaviour from myself now. (People often tell me I am far too sentimental about the past, and it probably is true. On the other hand, I believe that we have the power to fashion our own book of memories, and when doing so, why should we not remember the best and discard the rest?)
Despite the dictatorial mandates of our Twelfth Night celebrations, I do believe they were kinder than some of the ancient year-end rituals. An old English custom required the slaying of a wren by the men or boys of the village. The wren then was displayed on a pole and carols were sung:
'We hunted the wren for Robin the Bobbin,
We hunted the wren for Jack of the Can,
We hunted the wren for Robin the Bobbin,
We hunted the wren for every one.'
This sacrifice of the wren or the sacrifice of a boar or pig represented the ancient sacrifice of the King or even of the God. The wren once was considered the 'King of the Birds' and represented the God who ruled over half the year. With its sacrifice, Spring and Summer could return.
This mirrors the ancient Canaanite sacrifice of Mot, who was harvested, beaten, and then made into bread to be eaten. As well as being the Ruler of the Underworld, he was the God of the Grain.
These are but a few of my Twelfth Night memories and musings. I come to the end of this Yuletide season with a sense that it passed too quickly. With some horror, I have seen shelves groaning with chocolates for St. Valentine's Day and Valentine cards in the local supermarkets since New Year's Day. Although I love festivals and holidays, surely there is no harm in enjoying and being satisfied with a few days of ordinary time. As with the contrast between darkness and light, a festival is defined mainly by its contrast with ordinary days. Let us at least have a decent interval in which we can put away the Yuletide decorations, spending a moment with each, remembering the year when it was given or first added to the collection or to be reminded of the giver before we begin to think about St. Valentine's Day!
I would like to end on a positive note, with an ancient prayer:
'As Above, so Below,
As the Universe, the Soul,
As Without, so Within,
To You, O Blessed and Gracious One/Ones,
I consecrate Body, Mind and Spirit,
Now and Forever, Blessed Be.'
Fairly universal in its application, I think.
If I were in London, I think I would spend the day visiting the treasures of Sutton Hoo. I am a firm believer in the power of heritage, and that ancient ship burial is a powerful relic. Combining both pagan and Christian traditions, cremation with inhumation, it brings the powers of earth and sky together, as well as the best of ancient Anglo-Saxon art (and riches). It is a treasure trove for all the senses. It was Sutton Hoo that set my spirit aflame as a child, and gave me a profound and immediate connection with our past. (Never mind the time and spacial difference... I shall visit it as best I can in my imagination until I can return there in reality.)