How do you answer the call for relationship-building when a Deity from a cultural Pantheon you have scant experience with “taps” you? This is my chronicle of my developing relationship with the Celtic equine Otherworld Goddess, Rhiannon.
There is something of a layered back story in this tale, which can make one wonder about a Deity’s level of patience when it comes to a “tapped” human eventually making the decision to come around and answer that call. (However, if you’ve read Book I of The Mabinogion, or Y Mabinogi, as it’s more academically known in Welsh, which largely concerns Rhiannon and Her trials, you already know that She is a Goddess of remarkable patience.) My back story’s first layer reaches into the past considerably, as this excerpt from my diary dated September 14, 1992, attests:
Last night I had a bizarre dream/vision of stepping into a long, black limousine, in the back of which were Beings that I suspect were the Three Fates: They were eldritch and mysterious women, all in white but decayed, with shrouds veiling Their faces.
The driver of the limousine adjusted the rear-view mirror so that I could gaze into it. What ensued happened so quickly, it’s like time-lapse photography in hyper-speed: My eyes fixed on the mirror, I saw the moon come into view. Within seconds, it waxed from a slender New Moon crescent to Full. The white heat of the light filled first the mirror, then the entire limousine, with a blinding brilliance.
At this point, I was no longer “me.” Was I a camera angle? The car was gone. I was no longer anchored to anything. All was blinding white light. And then I heard a distinct shout from a female voice: “RHIANNON!” The effect was akin to a sonic boom; I was terrified. Over my right shoulder appeared the Goddess, the snout of a white mare turning into the profile of a gorgeous blonde woman with turquoise-colored eyes. I had the sensation of flying forward with Her until I fell back into my body.
The next layer of the back story takes place in October of 2005, when I’m working the pre-dawn shift at the Borders bookstore in Aiea, Oahu, receiving pallets of books on the shipping docks at the ghastly hour of 4:30 a.m. My five coworkers and I were responsible for unpacking the pallets and categorizing them into their respective carts for shelving in the store. My zone of the store was zone C, whose shelves were comprised of my favorite nonfiction book categories: Metaphysical, Psychology, Religion, Philosophy, and Art.
On this particular early October day, I remember wheeling my first of four six-foot-tall metal carts laden with books to the Metaphysical shelves in zone C. I sorted them alphabetically, working my way from the end. I remember sighing with distaste as I shelved a slew of books and “oracle” cards by Doreen Virtue. But then a very curious book lingered in my hands: Magic of the Celtic Gods and Goddesses: A Guide to Their Spiritual Power, Healing Energies, and Mystical Joy by Carl McColman and Kathryn Hinds. Just published, I noted.
As is my wont, I flipped to the back of the book to read the authors’ bios; I had never heard of either of them before, but I smiled with approval when Kathryn Hinds’ blurb identified her as a scholar and aficionada of Medieval Studies and Welsh Mythology. My shift ended at 10 a.m. that day, and, grateful for my 30% Borders employee discount for retail purchases, I excitedly tucked my newly bought copy of Magic of the Celtic Gods and Goddesses into my purse. I began devouring the book as soon as I’d arrived home and was mercifully transported away from my noisy surroundings at the U.S. Naval Station Pearl Harbor.
Passage from Soul’s Dark Night to Dawning of Contact with a New Deity
The next layer of my back story and Rhiannon’s Presence in my life entails a very sad chapter of the death of my friend Kathryn Fernquist Hinds, co-author of the Magic of the Celtic Gods and Goddesses book I mention above. As I’ve written about previously, Kathryn’s untimely death this past January 30 precipitated a deep spiritual crisis for me; specifically, a crisis in the belief of the power/efficacy of prayer, as hundreds of people from a diverse array of religious traditions were praying for Kathryn to have a successful surgical outcome the night of January 30. I’d done my own series of rituals evoking the healing power of the great Goddess Sekhmet, and in the wake of Kathryn’s death, I was actually severely angry and couldn’t even bring myself to look at my Sekhmet shrine anymore. My anger spilled over towards other healing Deities like the Goddess Brigid, Whom I decided to ignore when I made the decision to cancel the Imbolc ritual I was initially supposed to lead on the night of January 31. (If you’re curious, my hard-heartedness towards these Goddesses began to dissipate on February 2, when, in a remarkable instance of UPG, Sekhmet yelled at me: “Don’t you DARE turn your back on Me!”)
As the month of February progressed, I felt the indescribable spiritual sensation that I get when either a Deity or a spirit of the human dead is “knocking” on the threshold of my conscious awareness, imploring me—to use another metaphor—to pick up the Cosmic Phone Line and “dial Them in.” The strength of the sensation depends on the Deity or spirit in question, of course; some Deities, like the Norse Hel or the Inuit Sedna, made their “first contact” with me quite viscerally and violently, ripping into me from the nape of my neck to try to stage a takeover of my body/mind (both Goddesses were successful, as my links to my blog posts about those trance possession experiences relate).
Rhiannon’s energy—for it was unmistakably Her reaching out to me—felt heavier but quieter, if that makes any sense, than the energies of other Underworld Deities with Whom I have established devotional relationships. Her energy impacted several of my physical senses as well: the sounds of trotting hooves (not the same as the hoof-tread of my Witch Lord and Master of the Woods) and faint choirs of birds, the smell of damp earth (I just “know” it’s the interior of a dolmen; don’t ask me how I know that!), the terrible/awe-inspiring sight of the White Mare/Night Mare rearing up against an Otherworldly Moon. Emotionally, I felt something new, something no other Underworld Goddess or God ever brought in Their auric field, in my experience: an acute loneliness. This Goddess is profoundly sad. More weight pressed into my heart as I literally felt the truth of that realization. Rhiannon is not just very sad—She is alone in Her sadness. (Again, read Book One of the four-part Y Mabinogi and you’ll discover just how fucked up Her story is, if you haven’t been exposed to it before. Seriously, it’s worse than any Greek tragedy I was ever taught in school.)
I’m of the opinion, as a Polytheist, that relationships with Deities are, for the most part, symbiotic. Maybe not all Gods and Goddesses, but many of Them need us just as much as we need Them. I remember reading an account of the amazing Russian mystic and co-founder of the Theosophical Society, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, traveling to Cairo in the 1870s and conjuring a long-forgotten Egyptian god in the desert night. She reported that the god’s life force energy was pretty much reduced to nothing due to millennia of neglect by humans. That account of hers made me profoundly sad when I first read it as a teenager.
Is Rhiannon reaching out to me because of an as-yet unspoken need on Her end? I truly began to wonder about it. But how would I go about initiating contact with Her? Truth be told, aside from honoring Brigid at Imbolc and offering prayers of thanksgiving to Lugh for a good harvest at each Lughnasad, I had no ritual familiarity with any other Celtic Deities. Honestly, They seemed for the most part quite alien to me. Sure, I’d admired Them in the past through literature, by and large—exactly in a Medieval Studies kind of way for The Mabinogion. I knew, academically, even less about Irish epics, even though I’ve had a lovely hardcover edition of the Tain Bo Cuailnge sitting on one of my bookshelves for years.
If I’m honest with myself and you, gentle reader, I was scared of “doing it wrong”—of making an attempt at ritual contact with Rhiannon and either “misfiring” in the attempt, or, worse, somehow incurring Her anger. After all, I’m an initiate in the West African religion of Ifá as well, and if there’s one way I live my devotional life for the Orisha, it’s by adhering to strict protocol of propitiation. One false move, say, when making ebo (sacrifice) to Ogun, God of War and Lord of Iron (to Whom oaths are still sworn on iron chains in legal courts in parts of southern Nigeria!), and you may literally wind up in a car accident, or worse.
Well, maybe Rhiannon won’t get mad at me, but what if She makes fun of me in my plodding attempt at ritualized first contact? What if She perceives me as a puny human not worth Her time; at best, I’d come across as comic relief to Her? No, Anna, c’mon—now you’re just coming up with anything to procrastinate in the urgent matter of getting to know Her. Okay, okay! Sheesh! Still, I thought, it’s so much easier with Kemetic and Hellenic Deities—look at the vast amounts of records and other writings supporting cultic practices in antiquity that we can adapt for today!
By way of contrast, no, I don’t have written prayers to Rhiannon from the Middle Ages or earlier to serve as some kind of devotional guidepost. I only have my body, my breath, and a shared link to an enchanted Soulscape lit up by an Otherworldly Moon, accompanied by the sound of drumbeats/heartbeats pulsating from deep within the Hollow Hills.
Ah, but you have this great resource as well, I realized: Kathryn’s words, a testament of her own devotion to Rhiannon. Kathryn’s book Magic of the Celtic Gods and Goddesses once again served as a lifeline for me. That settled it! On Valentine’s Day, 2018, while so many people were busy succumbing to the late-capitalist forces of commodified “love,” I made up my mind to ritually reach out to Rhiannon in a spirit of love and service.
I set up the central altar in my home temple space with a lovely stone bust image of Rhiannon as well as a statue of Epona, shown seated side-saddle on horseback and accompanied by a foal. I placed an earthenware cauldron in the center, into which I poured rose water and sprinkled dried rose buds on the surface, as I learned from Kathryn’s book that Beltane was Rhiannon’s holiday par excellence and garlands of roses were draped around the necks of statues of Epona by Roman soldiers stationed in Gaul. Rose energy, roses galore! I can do that! I thought, cautiously optimistic.
I actually had fresh oat cakes/bannock lying around—I bought them for Imbolc, but they went uneaten—and thought that such an offering would be nicely paired with a chalice of good old whole milk (cow’s milk) sweetened with a dollop of wildflower honey. Nothing fancy, but offerings from my locality and from my heart. Those would have to suffice!
I don’t know how I do this—maybe it’s the gift of Awen I came into this world with—but after setting up Sacred Space in my tradition and calling upon the Cardinal Directions and their Watchtowers, a spontaneous evocation to Rhiannon just bubbled up from my lips. While certainly pleasantly surprised, it felt so natural and soothing, yet incredibly energizing, and I “felt” that the gates between my world and Hers had swung wide open in an instant. My statues seemed alive, harkening to my every word.
And then the rest was remarkably simple and heartfelt. I pulled up a meditation cushion and sat before Rhiannon, Sovereign Queen of the Underworld, and made it known that I was making myself fully receptive to Her Presence, Her messages, and Her energies in my daily life. She “spoke” to me, replying that I was already serving Her, not just through my friendship and loyalty to Her Priestess, my friend Kathryn, but in my acts of service to birds (by feeding them on my balcony every day) and to horses (by helping promote the equine medicine breakthroughs being brought to market by a veterinary medicine client in my advertising copywriting day job).
True to Her patient nature, She waited for me to come to Her in due time by my earthly reckoning of time’s passage, for our Partnership, akin to that of a horse and rider, was inevitable. Upon “hearing” this, I immediately began to do runargaldr of the runes Ehwaz for “Movement,” Raidho for “Right Road,” and Berkana for the “Divine Earth Mother” and the burgeoning of new life as symbolized by greening birch branches in the spring. (White birch trees, to me, also very much connote the Otherworld/Land of the Dead.)
More poignantly still, Rhiannon told me that She does, indeed, know what it means to suffer, and that I can trust Her to help me carry my burdens in life. And when I take horse form, She will groom me—literally and metaphorically—in preparation for the many adventures She says that await me on the moonlit paths leading to and underneath Her holy hills.
So, in the end, maybe the Christians are right about a theological principle of theirs: the principle of grace, of being granted an outpouring of benevolence, typically love and mercy, because the Divine desires us to have it just because—not because of anything we have done to “earn” it. Hail, Rhiannon, full of grace!
I do believe that grace coupled with the Zen Buddhist concept of Shoshin or “Beginner’s Mind” is solely culpable for ushering me into the daybreak after my Dark Night of the Soul experience. As far as how my views on prayer have changed, they really haven’t. I still group prayer into four main categories—adoration, thanksgiving, the conferral of blessings, and intercessory prayer—but I think I’m starting to get the hang of paradoxically setting an intention whilst not being attached to the outcome.
When all is said and done, as a Priestess I fully acknowledge that a great deal of what I do is bow to the Ones I serve out of respect to Their powerful, inscrutable Mysteries.
May the experience of those Mysteries nourish and sustain us and ripple out into all the Worlds. For the harm of none and the good of all, So Mote It Be!