Tuesday, September 17, 2013

People of the Earth with Mayan Elder

Previously I’ve talked about altars being a place for setting out tools to be used in a working or worship.  The altars set up by Rachael Watcher according to instructions of Mayan Elder Apolinario Chile Pixtún, affectionately known as “Tata,” were something else again.  Tata, from Guatemala, is the Leader Coordinator of the Mayan Confederation of Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras.

 The event was the fourth People of the Earth gathering.  Heretofore People of the Earth has been a public event open to all, but this time we had a visiting Mayan elder who’d expressed a desire to work with people with more direct personal experience of Earth-based spirituality rather than the less magically adept seekers that comprise his usual audience, so the event was by invitation, but included practitioners of several traditions (Wiccan, Heathen, Voudoun, et al.)

Tata prepared us for the ceremony with a talk on “the current time of B’AQTUN and the spiritual energies of the Mayan pyramids: How we can and must dive deeper into the ceremonies, the energies, and the powers that need to be managed at this time.”

* * * * *

We are outdoors sitting in a circle under the shade of oaks, facing a roaring central fire.  I take this to be the main working altar, since everything we did involved the fire.  A row of greens alternating with apples, oranges and pears encircles the fire itself, which stands safely off the dry earth in a shallow fire bowl standing on three legs.

Altar Photos by Don Frew
Just beyond that circle stands an array of baskets, bowls, bottles, and bags containing materials to be used in the working.  These included such things as a basket of flower petals; Florida water; a bag of wood chips; a bowl of mixed herbs, evergreens, crushed leaves and resins; and a basket of many small candles of all different colors.  These are the working tools; none are on the al

As we gather, someone goes around the circle distributing to each person a candle and a chunk of wood.

Tata had explained, in Spanish through an interpreter, that his ancient Mayan religion honors the cardinal directions like Witches and many Pagans do.  The quarters don’t necessarily carry all the many correspondences we use (East = Air, dawn, Spring, etc.).  Nor are the colors assigned to each quarter those to which we’re generally accustomed.

A tall dowel topped by something that looks like a big pompom stands in an iron base at each Quarter – one white, one red, one yellow, and one black.  What appears to be a TV tray covered with a cloth of the corresponding color stands in front of each pole.  A glass chalice of clear water sits on each table, along with a glass of juice and two pieces of fruit.  The red altar, which is the one where Tata began the ceremony, held apples, pomegranates, raspberries, and red juice that looked like it may have been cranberry.  In addition, potted flowers graced the base of the altar, beneath and just in front of the table.  Again, the colors of the flowers reflected the colors each altar.

The yellow altar held a goblet of orange juice, some bananas and lemons, plus a sprinkle of greens as on the other altars.  Beneath it stood yellow flowers.  The black altar held a glass of the darkest juice, probably blackberry or blueberry.  Its fruits were dark blackberries and plums.  Dark purple flowers stood at the base.

I can’t see the white altar well from where I sit, but its juice appears to be pale lemonade[1] and it also holds what I think is a coconut, cut open to show its white meat, and a strange multisided geometrical looking white object.[2]

North Altar

All the altars have been erected with great care.  I later ask Rachael if she had created the altars or if she’d been instructed as to what objects were needed one each one and where.  She made the altars according to Tata’s specifications.  Glass novena candles in respective colors sit on each altar and are lit at the start of the ceremony.  Perhaps had our ritual been performed in the dark, they would be more noticeable.

Tata had explained that in his tradition they do what we would recognize as being Quarter-calling not in a circle, but rather cross-wise, beginning at the East and continuing to West, then from North to South.  I am a bit disoriented, although it is obvious that the evening sun is setting in the West.

East Altar
Tata asks those of us who can to kneel facing each Quarter as he works. Those of us who can’t kneel simply stand with heads bowed, while the younger and fitter among us kneel. Tata speaks in his native tongue, so we hear no translation.  Instead, we listen, as he’d told us to, with our hearts.  He said our hearts could hear the words from his heart.  He begins by kneeling before the red altar, which in my mind was associated with Fire and the South, but in this case was East.  He speaks for quite a while as Quarter-calling goes, probably at least five minutes each, and with respect, solemnity, and fervor. Although I don’t know the language, I do recognize the words “Oakland, California” at each Quarter, and that’s where we are.  He seems to be saying prayers to each direction.

West Altar
Next Tata addresses the black altar in the West in a similar manner, and then progresses to North and South. 

South Altar
When we are thus centered in sacred space, the nexus of which was the fire, Tata instructs us to approach the fire from the East, offer a prayer, toss our candles and wood into the fire, and circumambulate deosil around the fire and back to our places.  Doing this one person at a time takes a while, since there are about 40 participants.  Sitting in the summer evening in a circle of colleagues who hold values similar to mine, watching each individual, gazing at the flames, feels good.  The quiet and the “between-the-world-ness” brings serenity.

At my turn at the fire, I ask for forgiveness for using more than my share of the Earth’s bounty, and I pray that all beings have enough of everything they need, that we learn to take nor more than what we need, that we tread lightly on the Earth and live in balance. I whisper words to this effect with the breath of my words upon the wood and the candle, and then I add them to the flames.

Later more baskets and bags are passed around for us to take more candles, wood chips, herbal mixtures, flower petals, as we take our concluding walk around the circle and up to the fire.

Center Fire and Offerings

Towards the end of the ceremony, Tata mixes a bowl of what appears to be mainly waters.  In the process of mixing the waters from different bottles, he blows across the mouths of the bottles to produce a sound.  I do not know why, but I do know that this act carries meaning.  He sloshes the water around the perimeter of the fire, where the circle of fruits and greens separates the fire from the larger circle.  I seem to remember that he also sprinkles each Quarter altar with the water.  There is no formal dismissal of Quarters as is customary in Witchen circle.

* * * * *

Above I’ve recounted my experiences and impressions.  I’m sure that each person there carries slightly different memories, depending upon many variables, including such things as the mood they were in that day, the experiences they brought with them from their own lives, any expectations they may have had, and where they sat.

What appealed to me was the obvious care and reverence with which everything was brought together and performed, the sense of fellowship I felt, the beauty of the surroundings, both natural and human-made, the quiet filled with actions but not with talking, and the flames.  I’m grateful to have had this opportunity.

* * * * *

Post-mortem:  More about the purpose of the ritual.  As I mentioned earlier, Tata talked about “the current time of B’AQTUN and the spiritual energies of the Mayan pyramids: How we can and must dive deeper into the ceremonies, the energies, and the powers that need to be managed at this time.”  Perhaps it should have been obvious that this talk concerned the Mayan calendar and the progression of the ages, but it wasn’t to me or to my two companions.  I tend to tune out when I hear people talking about predictions of end times.  I hold a vague acceptance of the notion of the Age of Aquarius.  The Kali Yuga appeals to me.  So call me ignorant: I knew nothing of the Mayan calendar or any predictions, only that they were a current topic in the news and in conversation.

However, I have since learned that the Mayan calendar delineates a 5,200-year cycle.  We are at a time that is the ending of one time and the beginning of the next lifetime of the world.  This is a time of significant rebirth.  We “People of the Earth” can mediate in this time of transition from one age to the next.  We can facilitate the change.

Tata was addressing the spirits of place when he prayed at each cardinal point.  At first he encountered puzzlement on the part of the local lands spirits when he spoke his native language, so he also addressed them in Spanish.

Tata acknowledged with pleasure the presence of so many women at this working. Both he and the spirits of place were glad for our participation.

Knowing as I now do more of the specific intent of this working, I can say that my prayers and offerings wouldn’t have differed from the ones I used.

[1]   I later learn that this is white cranberry juice with a splash of coconut water.
[2]   It was white cranberry juice with a splash of coconut water.

Friday, September 06, 2013

More Thoughts on Syria

My blog about why I’m conflicted on Syria has elicited thought-provoking comments.  Those comments, plus others gleaned from cyber-sources (news media and personal opinions and analyses) from people who know more about the region and the culture, inspire this update.

I’m a liberal, white, reasonably well-educated American woman sitting safely in California while the carnage in Syria (and elsewhere) continues to take lives and limbs. And while the debates in Congress and among media pundits continues unabated, unresolved, and, in my opinion, unresolvable.  My news sources are manifold: network television, cable television, the Internet, print publications with deeper, more nuanced analyses (Mother Jones, Vanity Fair, Utne Reader, local newspapers, et al. – I’m a bit of a news junky).  However, none of these sources is other than reportage by professional journalists.

I’m now of the opinion that the dictatorship of the al-Assad family[1] may not necessarily be the worst government Syria might have.  Yes, it is a dictatorship, and that’s not a ‘good thing.’  But this family has been educated in the west and seems to have a less theocratic and more secular approach to governing.  Don’t get me wrong: I think they should be deposed.  I’m also convinced that when, not if, that happens, genocide will be perpetrated on the Alawite minority.

I quote from a post by Eli Ghith,[2] a Syrian living in the United States who has family in Syria:

I felt the need today to address many of your questions with ground facts and accounts from my family…. There is a grand untold story about the Syrian catastrophe that our news outlets, politicians, and virtually anyone with a microphone, either has no insight or no integrity to tell it to you straight. They keep describing the atrocities of the regime against its own people and the exploding humanitarian crisis.

That much is true but so much is missing.

First, a short history: Since gaining independence following WWII, Syria (with its religious, ethnic and linguistic diversity) was plagued by instability and political strife; the country witnessed one coup d’état after the other until the Baath Party took over in 1963. A power struggle at the top of the Baath Party resulted in Hafez al-Assad’s era from 1970 until his death in 2000, when the presidency was conveniently transferred to his son Bashar. The young London-educated optometrist was no politician and dreamed of gradual democratization of Syria but the Old Guards fiercely protected the status quo, thus the so-called “lost decade.”

Enter the so-called Arab Spring. The Syrian government responded to people’s demands the only way it knew how, through violent oppression. In a matter of a few months, the movement was crushed and the Syrian people went back to living under the half-century-old Baath dictatorship. However, gradually and consistently, foreign fighters kept pouring into the country, armed and ready to die in the fight against the Assad regime.  Who are they and how did they get here, you ask. The simplified answers is, they are from over thirty different nationalities, such as Bosnia, Chechnya, Yemen, Sudan, Mongolia, Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan, India, Indonesia, you name it. They were sent there with the support and [very very abundant] funding of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. My family in Syria described how overwhelming number of foreign fighters have overtaken the “free” area of the country, including Yabroud, my family’s ancestral and current hometown, 45 miles North of Damascus.

Those rebels terrorize the populace and extort their resources through kidnapping, rape, and public executions. Foreign fighters and fundamentalist groups have hijacked the Syrian people’s initial revolt and turned it into this endlessly tragic war. Those rebels force their way into civilian areas and use the locals as human shields. Even if the Syrian Army forces were to aim surgically at rebels’ posts, heavy civilian casualties will ensue. Both sides have reached a point of indifference about civilians’ death; they call it collateral damage. The recent chemical attack by the Syrian Army against the Syrian people is another horrific piece of evidence.

Let my family’s situation give you a sample. Foreign fighters took over their town shortly after the Syrian Army withdrew to focus on hotter spots. The Free Syrian Army, the supposed leading force of the revolution, could neither contain nor even reason with those foreign fighters. The Free Syrian Army cannot stop those rebels from pillaging, raping, and kidnapping for ransom. As I call my family daily, I hear more such stories about people I once knew. My 70-year-old mother told me about a baker who was kidnapped for ransom. Upon his release, he took his family out of town to stay at his brother’s in a Damascus suburb called Jaramana. A week later, his wife and toddler son were killed, along with tens more, in a massive car explosion in Jaramana. The reality is that civilians are dying left and right and the world looks too busy treating Syria like a political argument instead of a humanity crisis.

At this time, Syria’s political structure has been fractured to a point of no recognition; virtually, there is a different warlord everywhere you go. … The Syrian people is [sic] stuck between the government (with its professional army and never-back-down policy) and the rebels (with their limitless support and brutality). Both sides are defending bigger interests of bigger players. For the sake of focus, I am only discussing the situation domestically; the international chess game of Syria is a giant can I do not want to open here.

So, in a country of 22,000,000, we already have a death tally exceeding 100,000 and over 2,000,000 refugees. … forced into desert refugee camps in four neighboring countries. While we hear war drums beating, we need to be aware what a military intervention could really do. If the Assad regime survives the looming strikes, it will react like a beehive after you hit it with a baseball bat. If the Assad regime falls, expect Rwanda-like news, where people are massacred on an unimaginable scale; minorities will be prime targets. The ensuing lawlessness and chaos will make Somalia look like a safe place for your summer vacation.

So what is the solution, you ask. I do not know, I answer. The area has had a very long, complicated history of bad blood. … Growing up in Lebanon and Syria, we knew that the best we could hope for was a relatively peaceful co-existence, until the next conflict arose, and it always did. I cannot claim to have the solution and you should not believe anyone who dares making that claim. The best we can do is pushing for a stop of the violence while aiding to the refugees, any amount we can afford can help. Prayers help too. It is not a matter of who’s right anymore. It is a matter of slowing down the killing machine and letting fewer people die today.

[Emphases added.]

Reading this heartbreaking account makes my earlier analysis less convincing.  Yes, someone is using WMD on innocent civilians, and as I’ve said, I don’t really care who’s doing it to whom; I just want it never to be done again by anyone to anyone.

I still see a clear parallel between domestic abuse within a nuclear family and domestic abuse within the borders of a state.  The big difference is that within a family one has shared genes and shared heritage, while within Syria there are many competing factions that make the situation much more complex.

Mr. Ghith asks that we fortify any help we can offer with prayers.  I join him.  Neither Mr. Ghith nor I cares where you direct your prayers, only that they work to help protect the Syrian people and to reinforce their righteous efforts to achieve, in peaceful collaboration with all factions, a government that meets the needs of all Syrian residents and oppresses none.

Atargatis, arise!

[Pitch, please contact me off-blog by email or phone.]

[1]   I note that while the al-Assad family is Shiite, Bassar al-Assad’s wife Asma is Sunni.
[2]   The piece from which I quote ends: “Thanks for reading, feel free to pass it on.”

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Why I’m Conflicted about Syria

Let me begin by stating that my philosophy is generally one of nonviolence.  Along with millions of others around the world, I protested the invasion of Iraq by Bush, Rumsfeld, et al.

Secondly, I’m excited to see signs of desire for democratic secular governments in several North African and Near Eastern countries, as evidenced by the Arab Spring uprisings.  I believe that all these matters need to find their ultimate resolution from within the populations of those countries.  It is not the business of the United States to police the world.

Further, I am of a generation that never knew the term “domestic violence.”  Some were aware of homes where violent behavior ruled, of battered women and children.  But we had no term for it and we tried to ignore it.  I know I was told by adult authorities at the time, including two Philadelphia Police patrolmen friends of my dad, that a whatever went on within a family was private, their business alone.  Besides, the man ruled the roost in those days.  Few women held title to any property in their own names, nor was credit extended to women, in particular not to married women.

When I was 11 years old, I was staying with my older brother, his wife and their new daughter, ostensibly to help with baby care.  While I was there, a horrendous uproar occurred in the bedroom.  I heard things being thrown around.  I heard my brother in a rage.  I heard my sister-in-law screaming with each blow she got.  I was a child.  I had never experienced anything like this.  I was afraid.  I felt I should do something, at the very least tell my parents when I got back home.  But as soon as she recovered enough, my sister-in-law gave me a lecture in the strongest terms that I should never ever tell anyone about what I’d witnessed.  She made me promise. As I said, I was young, unfamiliar with such conduct, and afraid.  So I never told anyone.  This was in 1954.

Not surprisingly, my sister-in-law, by this time pregnant with her second daughter, divorced my battering brother and cut all ties with his family (but for my one maiden Aunt Mary).  I don’t blame her a bit, although I regret having had no relationship with my two nieces.

My brother,[1] who was also alcoholic, went on to pair, and even sire children, with a number of women, all of whom he beat and all of whom left him.  Years later in another state on the opposite coast I stayed with his then-family for some months while I was pregnant with my first child (out of wedlock, as they say).  This was a full house with three adults and four children, one of whom was my nephew.  I witnessed similar drunken tirades, also behind a closed bedroom door and falling upon my then-sister-in-law.

He had never directed his violence towards me.  My younger sister tells me that she witnessed at least one attack on our mother, but I’m sure it couldn’t have gotten too extended or I’m sure my sister would have called someone for help.  This incident occurred after I no longer lived in my parents’ home.

In the late 1960s and early ‘70s I found Second Wave Feminism.[2]  With that came a more nuanced political awareness and analysis of domestic/spousal abuse.

Fast forward to the ‘70s, another incident that illustrates my, and society’s, changing consciousness about domestic abuse took place when I was driving down Sansome Street in San Francisco late one night.  This is in the financial district, an area with little foot traffic or street activity at night.  I saw a man punching a woman.  The woman was attempting to defend herself by dodging his fists.  I didn’t know what to do.  I wanted to interfere.  I slowed down and yelled out the car window for him to leave her alone.  His response:  “It’s okay; she’s my girlfriend.”  Huh?  So that makes it okay to beat her?  Then I offered her a ride, just to get her somewhere away from him, but she declined my offer.  Maybe she was one of those women who try to rationalize that she either had it coming or that her man was entitled to dominate her. 

Also in the ‘70s a newspaper reports about a man who splashed acid on his wife’s face so her disfigurement would prevent her from straying, so other men presumably would not find her attractive.

Helpguide.org states: “Domestic violence and abuse can happen to anyone, yet the problem is often overlooked, excused, or denied.”  Now I hold the position that domestic violence is everybody’s business.

* * * * *

Having given the reader those positions, I now explain the reasons for my conflicted feelings around any potential involvement in Syria.

Like most who view videos of horrendous chemical attacks on innocent civilians in Syria, I am appalled.  Disgusted.  Outraged.  I weep.  What I keep seeing – and I do believe that as difficult as they are to watch, we should be seeing what’s being done – is what I saw in those early days of my growing awareness of the pervasiveness and malevolence of domestic abuse.

I am convinced that chemical attacks in Syria originated with the Assad regime and that the victims have all been in rebel, or at least unstable, uncommitted, neighborhoods.  But regardless of who attacked whom, it is innocents, many women and children, who suffer.

I see this as being domestic abuse on a national scale.  We never interfered in cases of family dysfunction and battering until we recognized and understood the phenomena of spousal and child abuse.  Expanding that to a nation with discrete national borders, the family of Syria is suffering battery by their “fathers,” the ruling regime.[3]  These attacks do not seem all that different to me from that of the man who threw acid on his wife’s face.

What I learned about domestic abuse in the ‘70s was that it is everyone’s business.  How that extends on an international scale I don’t know.  I don’t have a resolution.  I’ve expressed my serious reservations about the U.S. making any kind of strike within the borders of a sovereign nation.  And on a personal, familial scale, I now do not hesitate to intervene when I witness battery.  We have police and courts and social workers who have been trained to recognize and act in such cases.  We have battered women’s shelters.

But where is the shelter for the battered Syrians?  There’s a growing refugee population with no place to call home, but who have managed to escape the immediate rain of blows, the bio-chemical attacks.

Where are the trained police to bring calm and restore equanimity to a nation?  Should there even be such agency?  Is Syria a signatory to the United Nations’ 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women?  Did the United States sign?  I suspect so, though I can find no list of signatories.  Here’s Unicef’s 2000 report on Domestic Violence against Women and Girls.

The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, General Assembly Resolution, December 1993, reads:

“Violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men and to the prevention of the full advancement of women...”

If one can see a nation as a large family grouping, then Syria is a nation in the throes of horrendous domestic violence.  Where is the U.N. when we need it?  Surely the United States isn’t the only country that views recent violence against an innocent civilian populace as being unacceptable conduct in a civilized society.

I wish I could proffer a solution, but sadly I cannot.  I write this with the hope that others may see this parallel and perhaps be able to draw upon that understanding in crafting a solution.

* * * * *
© Stéphane Beaulieu, used by permission
Now I speak as a Pagan who worships many of the old gods of our many peoples.  My inclination in times of crisis is to look around to see what divine entities protect the peoples of a given region.  The goddess called Atargatis is known as “the Syrian goddess.”  Goddess scholar Johanna Stuckey writes in MatriFocus,“[a] life-giving divinity associated with rivers and springs, motherly protector of humans and animals. Atargatis often served as tutelary or protector deity of urban centers — the providence or luck of the place.”

If she has receded from the minds of the peoples of her place, then perhaps it is time for us to reawaken her.  We can call her, give prayers and offerings, and elicit her maternal rage at the way her children are being treated.  Of course, most if not all of the victims in Syria are Muslims, but regardless, mothers do not usually allow their children to be mistreated and killed.

“Holy Atargatis, motherly protector of humans and animals, protector of Damascus, Aleppo and all of Syria, protect your children in their hour of great need!

[1]   Technically, half-brother by our father.
[2]   Frequent readers of my writings may tire of hearing of SWF all the time, but I can tell you that it turned my life around.  Not that I was an abused spouse; I was not.  But in so many ways, including a greater sensitivity to class and ethnic disparities – not race discrimination since there is only one race, the human race – and learning to work by consensus process.
[3]   Yes, I know that not all abusers are men.