Serpent as Primal Ancestor: Selected Indo-European and African Cultural and Religious Contexts

Dahomey greeting given to a python encountered in the wild: “You are my father and my mother. Be propitious to me.”

My father is coping well, overall, with his monthly chemotherapy treatments, and I’m very grateful for having the opportunity to spend so much time with him. This past Sunday was the most important Serbian cultural one for my parents and me: The Feast Day (Slava, pronounced SLAH-vuh) of our family’s patron saint, John the Baptist. The activities surrounding ritual purification with talismanic water (blessed during a special Mass by a bishop using sprigs of dried hyssop, basil, and rue) clearly are vestiges of pre-Christian Slavic customs designed to promote renewal. I gladly welcome the opportunity to fully celebrate these time-honored customs with my family. So after Sunday’s private Mass (held for families observing their John the Baptist Slava), Dad and I headed straight for my brother’s grave a short walk away from the monastery entrance. The Chicagoland area was gifted with nearly 10 inches of snow from the previous day’s storm; the day was sunny but cold, with a daytime high temperature of 11°. As I watched my frail, cancer-stricken father wade into the snow to make offerings of ritual foods at my brother’s grave, my heart immediately felt weighted by a heavy sadness.

dadatcemetery

Dad clearing space in the snow to leave offerings of ritual food on my brother’s grave.

I thought about the importance of the day, and how the uniquely Serbian concept of the Slava is a patrilineal one, with different saints “assigned” as protectors to Serbian clans, and I wondered which Pagan Gods those saints displaced. How far back into the mists of antiquity did this observance go? I thought about the cultural importance attached to the male head of the household and the enormous magico-religious role played by that man in every Serbian family, about how he serves as bringer of luck (or the lack of it) to a Serbian family’s Sudbina, or Destiny, and how he serves as mediator between the present and the past, between the living and the dead, stretching all the way back in time to the First Ancestor (i.e., the God of the Underworld, Veles), who incarnated as a serpent. I also thought about similar beliefs held about the head of the household and the connection to serpent-ancestors in ancient Greek and Roman religions and contemporary East African and West African ones. The cultic practice dots definitely connected in my mind in strikingly similar ways, as the research I’ve done and share below bears out. Join me on this cross-cultural spiritual odyssey into the serpentine Labyrinth of the Ancestors, won’t you?

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A Devotional Ritual for Nephthys to Bless and Protect the Dead

This past Saturday at World Tree Healing, I led a workshop on “Loving and Serving ‘Dark’ Deities.” It was a well-attended workshop and for the first hour, I engaged the participants in a series of discussions based on the following prompts:

  • How has staving off criticism from mainstream religions made Paganism afraid of its own shadows?
  • How do you help outsiders to your tradition distinguish between “darkness” and “evil”?
  • Has anyone ever had an experience of invoking Dark Deities in a group ritual context and then been castigated for invoking Them?
  • How is the function of the Trickster valuable to a society? Who is devoted to Trickster Gods?
  • In his Manifesto for his powerful Apocalyptic Witchcraft, Peter Grey has declared: “We call an end to the pretense of respectability.” What are your thoughts on this? What do Pagans lose by attempting to claw their way to the interfaith table, begging for scraps of acceptance from Abrahamic religions?

It was a great discussion that appeared to make two people with Abrahamic allegiances very uncomfortable, so they left after I had announced that we’d be taking a short break before our ritual to Nephthys would begin. Good riddance, I thought. I certainly didn’t want the miasma, or spiritual pollution, of their presences to spill over into my devotional ritual to my Patron Deity. The major risk of hosting a public Pagan ritual is that you never know what kind of people may show up, especially folks with overtly hostile ideologies (read: patriarchal monotheists) who attend solely to destabilize the gathering, which is why I absolutely favor doing private ceremonies in the company of fellow devotees I can vouch for.

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Mitrovski Zadušnice: The Serbian All-Souls’ Day Heralding the Start of Winter

There are times when you don’t need to look at a calendar page to know that the Days of the Dead are upon you. All of Nature seems to be a manifestation of the restlessness of spirits on the move, of hungry ancestors clamoring for your attention and your ritual foods. It’s the way that fog banks roll into the city on a strong north wind, blotting out the rising sun. It’s the way that the chill autumn rains beat upon your windowpanes as you curl up under the covers at night, trying to blanket all thoughts of your own mortality out of the province of conscious awareness. That’s what’s been happening in my experience here in Chicago as of the past 72 hours, and it’s all very fitting as tomorrow marks one of the biggest All Souls’ Days (Zadušnice in Serbian, from the root word duša, which means “soul”) in the Serbian calendar. Continue reading