An Underworld Focus

At this time of year, I pay a lot of attention to one part of my Focus*.

As altar-y spaces go, it is unquestionably the “witchiest” part of mine: bones, skulls, fossils of extinct species, a mummified bat, images of prehistoric cave paintings, megalithic spiral carvings and departed loved ones, a dried pomegranate. It is where I keep the black jar of rose water with which I have anointed several dead people, and the tiny jar of cedar oil, veteran of so many Hallows rituals, whose scent reminds me of the inside of a coffin.

It is The Underworld.

My Focus is built in a bookcase, with one shelf removed to make a double-height space. This area is The World, filled with all the symbols and reminders of what delights and moves me about life on Earth.

But on the shelf below The World is The Underworld, the place of grief, and memory, and ancestry.

This space is important to me because life is not all joy. It is loss and fear and the inevitable fact of mortality as well. Memory of what has forever gone away. And this, too, must be remembered and honored and reckoned with. And so I curate and care for this grim part of my Focus, and urge you, too, to create one on such themes, at least at this time of year: the time of Hallows.

Making an Underworld Focus is simple in concept but may be emotionally challenging. Gathering the images of your Honored Dead can be an experience of great sadness…or it can be one of fond remembrance. It depends on you.

Do you, like so many Pagans, have skulls or bones or Halloween decorations that set the proper mood? Gather those. Put down a black cloth as a base upon which to create your Focus. Arrange the objects and the pictures of your Honored Dead. Include a candle so you can “activate” your Focus when it is complete, and so it will be illuminated at night when you light it. You may want a small dish or incense burner so you can burn some incense there: perhaps the evocative, mood-altering resin incenses such as dragon’s blood or frankincense.

I keep some ritual tools in my Underworld, as well: a clamp and surgical scissors that were found in my mother’s apartment when she died (she was an RN), and a sprig of yew I gather in a cemetery each Halloween, dry for a year on the Focus, and then use to light the Hallows fire the following year.

You may wish to place an empty plate and/or drinking vessel on your Focus: symbol of the “empty place setting” that is often set for those who have died at Hallows feasts. You can make offerings on this plate: pomegranates are popular, or perhaps a red rose (fresh or dried).

When I light the candle on my Underworld Focus each night, I say the words, “The Honored Dead” (just as I say “The Sacred Earth” when I light the candle on The World Focus). This reminds me that I am of a lineage of organisms far beyond my mere nearby genetic neighbors and extending back billions of years. My Honored Dead are not only relatives and departed friends: they are ammonites and trilobites and bacteria.

Here, at this time of year when Pagans of all stripes contemplate mortality and ancestry, an Underworld Focus is a way to begin a practice of coming to grips with the fact that we will die, that all that arise from the Earth are subsumed within its Sacred fabric again, to be reconstituted as new life.


*An Atheopagan term for an altar, used as an alternative so as not to imply worship or sacrifice.

REMINDER! Please vote for my book for a Witchie Award! CLICK HERE!

LORE DAY: A New Sabbath for the Hallows Season

So, six months from now—in the Northern Hemisphere, mind—there is a two-day traditional holiday comprised of Walpurisnacht on April 30, followed by May Day.

The former is a sort of mini-Hallows: ghosts and scary Visitations. Then May Day itself is joy and lusty celebration.

Why isn’t this end of the year like that? Why don’t we have a happy joyous day followed by a solemn spooky day?

I propose we remedy this situation!

Halloween is what it is: it is jolly death-fun with skulls and bones and blood and dress-up. Candy for kids, parties for adults. A denatured, but still potent Festival of Death.

Hallows comes at the actual midpoint between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, which falls on or near Nov. 7 each year. It is a solemn acknowledgement of death, ancestry, and the passage of what is lost.

I propose a third, celebratory day: LORE DAY, to fall between them.

Lore Day, Nov. 1, is a day for telling the tales of the Departed: the stories they handed down of their exploits and funny moments, their gains and losses. And it is a time for practicing and teaching disciplines that are dying out: brewing mead or dandelion wine, or tatting, or smithy or quilting or weaving or spinning or knapping flints or fletching arrows or driving a stick-shift or I don’t know…developing MySpace pages.

We need not to forget these skills. And we need to remember those who practiced them.

So I commend to you a new Sabbath day: Lore Day. Part of the week-long High Holidays of Hallows.

Tell the tales of grandparents and great-grandparents. And show a young person how to do something that people don’t do much any more. It is how lore has been passed for thousands of years. Surely, we can make a day for it, once a year.

With Both Hands in Grave Dirt

‘Tis the season for we Pagany/witchy types. There is an entire aesthetic we—or most of us, anyway—enjoy that has a brief moment in the waning sun each year, and this is it.

Now, as Atheopagans, we don’t believe in ghosts or spirits or Dark God/desses. But that doesn’t matter: there is plenty of rich fodder for ritual, for reflection, and for psychological transformation at this time of year.

We’ve all been hurt. We’ve all suffered loss. And we have only to look out to the world around us to find ample and overflowing reason for rage, for sorrow and for lament.

el_salvador_darkness_sky_earth_angels_hell_heavenly_sculpture-1373244.jpg!d

Bones, skulls, graves and funerary ceremonies are powerful images and processes. They bring us into encounter with the fact of death and are cathartic moments when our deepest feelings can emerge. And this is the time of year most apt for these kinds of rituals.

So here are some ideas. These can be solitary or group rituals; in my experience such rituals are powerfully transformative and can make a real difference in our lives. You can do them in a back yard or even in a private corner of a public park*.

City_of_London_Cemetery_and_Crematorium_-_temporary_grave_decorations_03.jpg

  • Dig a shallow (perhaps 1′ deep) “grave” and hold a FUNERAL for (preferably biodegradable) symbols of what has departed or no longer serves you in your life. Enclose them in a wooden or cardboard “coffin” and bury it with full ritual honors. Keep a flower from the funeral and dry it for your Focus (I put mine in the Underworld section of my Focus, where I keep pictures of my Beloved Dead, as well as of ancestors, destruction and change.)6325510481_ffb3c10f22_b
  • Alternatively, build a PYRE. Place on it the symbols of what you wish to release, and light it ablaze. Be sure to practice fire safety–you can even do this ritual on a backyard fire pit. When the flames have cooled, keep a coal or a small portion of ashes from the fire for your Focus, to remind you of the change you have undergone.a4203082386_10.jpg
  • Perform a RESURRECTION. Something Missing from your life that you once had–some activity you loved, or quality or feeling about life? Build a mounded grave with a symbol or symbols of it buried inside. After dark, go to the grave and build a Focus beside it illumined by chimney candles or a jack o’lantern. Go for the spookiest look and feeling you can find!Contemplate the Focus; perhaps sip some blood-red wine. When the moment feels right, slowly dig for the symbol(s) of what has been lost, chanting, Bring it back to me, bring it back to me. Seize the symbol(s) tightly when you find them, and hold each to your heart. Replace the dirt as before. Carry the symbol with you, at least until Yule. This ritual can be even more powerful if done as a group, with one person as the “subject” and the rest choosing the symbol(s) to be buried and creating the grave–in this way, the subject will not know what is in the grave and its emotional impact will be stronger.

 

el_salvador_darkness_sky_earth_angels_hell_heavenly_sculpture-1373244.jpg!d

  • Visit with ANCESTORS. This one CAN be done in a a cemetery, preferably after dark. Prepare by anointing a black candle with cedar oil (the scent of coffin wood–at least, that’s my association. You can also use yew, which is an evergreen traditionally planted in cemeteries). Plant the candle in the ground, and light it (bring a glass chimney to keep the wind from blowing it out).

    Bring a list of ten or twenty of your ancestors’ names, if you don’t know many of them by heart. Read the list aloud, repeating 3 times. Ask aloud, three times, What, wise ancestors, would you have me know? What is your message for me? Pay close attention to what message arises from within you, for it is your wisest self speaking to you. I do not recommend this ritual for those with a history of abuse at the hands of family—the Abuser Voice is a powerful psychological structure and may hijack the process.

One of the things that scares people of the Overculture about Pagans is that unlike them, we are not in denial about the dark aspects of existence. We understand an emphasis on “white light and love” to be an incomplete and illusory perspective on the complex mixture that is our human reality. Death and loss are a part of this—and we as Atheopagans are even more unflinching about this, because we understand that an afterlife is highly unlikely. Working with the physical and symbolic reality of death and endings renders us more grounded in reality, more psychologically healthy and empowered, and more able to be effective in the world.

Speaking of, it IS the season! Be sure to complete or update your Death Instructions!


* Though it would be really cool, I do not recommend trying these rituals in an actual cemetery, as you may end up talking with police.

Interested in Atheopaganism? Please buy the book!