This picture saved me!
Christina Oakley gave this extremely powerful image to me over tea and cookies in her office at Treadwells Bookshop in Covent Garden, London. Seven years after my harrowing spontaneous initiation with the Horned God, I had finally drummed up the courage to ask for help. It was not easy to find someone who would understand the difference between visionary experience and insanity — especially in the UK where ‘mental and emotional problems’ are still perceived quite harshly. But the only way out of darkness for me has always been to find meaning in the experience. I felt Christina could provide that meaning, for she is a knowledgeable initiated Witch.
This Initiatory ordeal is discussed in depth in my previous posts: The Horned Ones, and London: How I Encountered the Spirits of the Land.
The Horned God had come to me in the form of large and powerful Stag/Man. Due to my own resonance with deer, I always see the God in the form the French Cernnunnos, the Stag. I had written a poem about Cernunnos as he appears on the Gundestrup cauldron a good 15 years before he came to me in the night.
( Intimations of Ancestry: Song of the Gudestrup Cauldron)
In England, the Stag is called Herne the Hunter, Lord of the Wild Hunt. Indeed, it was as he was leading the Wild Hunt through my house that he found me and my ordeal began.
When it comes to spirits and the Elder Gods: “If you can see them, they can see you.” Never take this lightly.
In her own poetic style, Christina told me about the picture at the top of this post. The bottom shows the Stag in the dark forest. We, as Hunter, or man in his primal, unconscious, undifferentiated state, have chased him there thinking “Wow I have found a big one! One that will feed me for many months!” In our pride we fail to see that the case is reversed. It is he who has led us into his wild domain.
The Hunter thinks the Stag is the one who will die — or who will serve him, or feed for him for a long time, but it is not so. It is the Hunter who dies by entering the Dark Night. The Hunter enters the maze and cannot find the way out until the God decides he is ready. This usually takes seven years in human time.
Does anyone know the reason seven years are required to face one’s demons and walk out wounded, but wiser, and profoundly changed? It is seven years. I know for a fact!
(In writing this, I just realized, I had asked for this experience back in 1996. I was questing in true Arthurian fashion in an Arthurian, Faery domain. In other terms, I was hunting the God — following the White Stag into the Otherworld to discover the richness and beauty of the unseen worlds. Where would he take me? What marvels would he show me? I thought he would he ‘feed’ me for a long time with wonders and possibly a spiritula prize of great merit. But rather than into the Grail Castle of transcendent beauty, he led me into the Abyss where death and a darkness waited to consume my to my very bones….for to the mortal being, the Faery realm is the abode of spirits, shades, the dead — and that is a dark place indeed.)
In Christina’s picture, the Stag’s antlers grow and branch into the Tree of Life. For Qabbalists, you can see that the Stag is not only BELOW the Tree, in the Qlippoth, but is actually the ROOT of the Tree. The traditional Qabbalistic propaganda about about the roots of the Tree of Life, or its upside down reflection, it shadow on the earth, is that they are the abode devils, demons, chaos, and evil to be strictly avoided in meditation and magical workings. Very dangerous indeed!
This fear, in my thinking, was promoted at a time when the Roman Church sought to separate the people from their Pagan Gods, who were also rooted in the land, and thus sever them from intimacy with nature. An image of the roots of the Tree of Life beginning in the horns of an animal with cloven hooves, is remarkable indeed. For the horned and cloven ones came to be, in Christianity, synonymous with the Devil.
The Dark Forest
Wandering in the Dark Forest, is the symbol for the Dark Night of the Soul. You are lost. It seems even God has left you to grope your way through your own blindness, left you unprotected to face the monsters you grew in the shadowy corners of your mind that lurk and block you until you admit their presence. No one can advise you in the murky terrain of your own soul. It is the helpless, lonely stage of the Quest, where no one answers your questions, where you don’t even know the right questions to ask, and comfort is in short supply.
But look again at the picture. High in the antler/branches of the Stag, are birds fluttering their wings. They hover just below the culminating symbol of what I guess is an embryonic deer, seeded in the womb space that pokes into the Upper World just under the earth. Singing, the birds conjure a blazing light around the top of the tree. Yet they seem to be barred from ascending to the Upper World, where light and life is. These birds show, not that there is a way out of the darkness, but that there is light in the darkness. The symbol also shows that the antlers of the Underworld Stag terminate in buds. These buds will flower and live again when conditions are right.
Seeing the pattern of the antler/tree reminds me of the labyrinthine path one follows in the forest of the soul. I have come to believe you must tread the maze completely before you are able to come back out into the light where the birds sing and fly free. This is because the pattern and boundary of the maze are fixed– its route, and our journey along it, is pre-ordained by the nature of its fixity.
Birds have always been symbols of the Soul. The presence of birds tell us this is soul work, this Stag chase into the woods is how we reclaim our soul.
When we return to the light and the living, we find our way to the sunny mountaintop where a cozy cottage sits in plain view with smoke coming out of the chimney. A warm, welcoming fire awaits us. We see the forest far below, visible and no longer threatening. Nothing can ever threaten us again, once we have faced the darkest dark and gone through it, not even the Devil with his horns and cloven hooves can scare us!
Looking closely at the image of the little hut on the hill, we see the impressions of flowers growing along a path that climbs a hill of solar rays, and terminates in a fire inside the house. Smoke flows out of the chimney.The land is cleared and the view is spectacular. In the distance, across the treetops of the forest, we see another such hill with another little hut with smoke coming out of the chimney. We are separate but not alone.
The flowers bloom from the buds at the points of the antlers that poke up out of the Underworld, the path ending in fire is an extension of the central trunk of the Tree of Life. Though the mountaintop is a classic symbol of spiritual attainment, this image is homely, earthy. The path of the Horned God does not lead to a celestial abode of angels and endless harping, but to life close to nature without being at its mercy. We are sovereign, but not lonely. But as the path leads up, it also leads down again. Our relationship with the God is cyclical and permanent. As this image so eloquently tells us, the Stag/God/Tree sustains us as he sustains all of life through nature.
Herne the Hunter and his Symbols
There were many other spirits that came to me with Herne — all of them part of his iconography, listed on his Table of Correspondences. When Christina described these things to me, the information was all the more convincing for my not having known it consciously before.
Herne’s Rites are traditional for Autumn Equinox, but I learned by experience that the Rites of Autumn are foreshadowed in the Spring, due perhaps to that Scorpio Full Moon at Beltane. The veil is thin at both seasonal tides, and when the veil is thin, the spirits come out upon the Earth.
Among the images associated with the Stag God are:
Harvest: First is the Harvest of Grain. Then comes the Harvest of Grapes for the wine. Third is the Harvest nuts. Last is the Harvest of Souls.
The idea of a Harvest of Souls always stirs us. It comes at the time of Samhain as we descend into the freezing darkness of Winter. Perhaps in primal times, many humans died at this time. The ancient Celts had a tradition of flogging each other with birch rods to cleanse impurities from the soul. I imagine this was a kind of insurance in case one did not survive the snows. In Christian times, the weak and sick must have run to the priests to cleanse their sins and gain absolution. Certainly the priests used this time of worry to harvest souls for Christ.
But Samhain was also a time for hunting. A large animal such as a stag would provide meat for many weeks, feeding a family in the deepest winter months when it was dangerous to stray out of doors. For farmers, October/November would have been a time to slaughter livestock, weeding out the old so that the new born in the Spring would be strong and healthy. Thus, the animal souls were harvested by the Gods, brought home again to be reborn in the Spring.
Symbols: Grapes, Wine, Vines, Garlands
The vines suddenly burst up through my bed, driving up over the sheets to wrap around me like snakes. Lengthening at a great speed, the green vines shot up through my mattress to bind me for the God.
If you ever get to read my fiction you will see I have been just as busy with wolves as I have been with Stag/Men.
Wolves prowled around the edge of my protective circle — but, strangely, couldn’t get in. Everything else did. Also Dogs, Birds of Prey, Blackbirds, Stags, Goats, Salmon ( the wisdom part)
Plants: Vines, Ivy, Cedar, Hops
Ritual Meaning: Celebrating the Second Harvest, Darkness Overtaking Light, Celebration of Wine.
Often Initiation leads through a death and second birth. In those terms, a second harvest would have to do with gathering the fruits of the second birth, sacrificing those fruits in preparation for another death. So the cycle goes round and round.
Deities: All Wine Deities especially Dionysus and Bacchus, Persephone, Modron, Morgan le Fay, Demeter, the Muses, Snake Woman, Sphinx, Thoth, Hermes.
Oh my! All of my most significant Gods and Goddesses! What could it all mean?
Activities: Wine Making and Adorning Graves.
What is this connection with wine and death? Anyone? Perhaps the answer is here: Stirring the Witchblood: John Barleycorn Must Die
Foods: Grapes, Acorns, Root Crops, Nuts, Apples (Goddess), Wine, Ale, Cider.
Witchcraft is the Green Religion
I am not writing all of this to blather on about myself, but to show how real the Initiation of the Horned God was and how real the Gods are. They were not contrived by ancient poets and bards, they were not invented by story tellers. They exist in their own Time/ Space and can be contacted through magical rituals and conscious observation. Our ancestors lived with these Gods and Goddesses, communicated with them regularly, made sacrifices to them to insure an abundant harvest. These ancestors were not silly children with overactive imaginations. Rather we moderns lack the instincts and intelligence of our forebears. We give nature short shrift, deny her our true attention. What right do we have to decide that the Gods of Earth do not exist just because we have cut off the organs we used to have to see them with? Safe inside the walls of our cities, we have decided that nature, our very source and provider, is irrelevant.
Seeing the spirits of the land, respecting the Gods and Goddesses of Earth proves that the Earth and all of nature is alive! The Gods embody the wisdom and sentience of the Earth, the animals her soul, the plants her spiritual essence. The Gods may be forceful towards those of us with the Sight because it is so important that they re-establish their priesthood. Who else will say what I am saying here: The Earth is your Mother, the Sky is your Father. That which is Above is as that which is Below. The Under World of spirit gives life to the Upper World of mortality. Without one, the other cannot exist.
Please be aware that you are walking on the Gods.
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