Virgin Death Goddesses: Hel, La Santa Muerte, and Yewa

Editorial Note: This is the transcript of a talk I gave at the 24th Annual Fellowship of Isis Chicago Goddess Convention, October 28, 2017, at the North Shore Holiday Inn in Skokie, Illinois.

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Introduction

Good morning and thank you all for coming to our 24th Annual FOI Chicago Goddess Convention! For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Anna and I’ve been proudly serving as legally ordained FOI clergy since 2012, though I have been active in Chicago’s Pagan community for 18 years and counting. I’m the executive editor of Isis-Seshat, a quarterly publication of the Fellowship of Isis, and I’m the founder of the chartered Iseum of the Rekhet Akhu, whose mission is to highlight the interrelatedness of the communities of the living and the dead and to cultivate transfigured spirits (akhu in ancient Egyptian) in human form.

So why did I choose this topic? We’re in the season of Samhain, the Celtic reckoning of the end of summer and the liminal time between one year and the next, and during this time our thoughts often turn to ones of our own mortality, as well as to remembrances of those who have gone before us. More than any other time of year, the honoring of the Deities and Spirits of Death is top of mind for most of us.

As a show of hands, who here honors a Death God or Goddess in their personal devotional practices? (Pause.)

I’m a Polytheist devoted to such Holy Powers, and I’d like to spend some time with you discussing three in particular: the Norse Goddess Hel, Mexico’s La Santa Muerte (the Holy Death), and the Nigerian Orisha, Yewa—Who They are, Why They matter, and how you can cultivate a devotional relationship with Them if you feel Their bony hands laying claim on you. What’s striking about these Death Deities of various cultures—northern European, North American, and West African—that I’m going to talk about is that They’re gendered female and They’re regarded as virgins, so we have a lot of intersectionality to examine when we focus on what we know about each Goddess historically and what we know about Them in contemporary worship.

But before we start discussing each of these three Cosmic Femmes Fatales, I’ve got a few thoughts I’d like to share on what significance gender bears as well as historical notions of the concept of “virginity” and how these impact the mythologies and the cultic practices surrounding the worship of Hel, La Santa Muerte, and Yewa.

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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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“The Dark Side of the Early Modern Witch”: Thoughts on Robert Eggers’ Film, “The Witch”

One impulse from a vernal wood

May teach you more of man,

Of moral evil and of good,

Than all the sages can.

–William Wordsworth, “The Tables Turned” (1798), lines 21-24

I judge the effectiveness and emotional relevance of a film, as I would any other artistic medium, by how much I keep engaging in dialogue with it long after my initial experience of it has ended. Is my overall curiosity not sated, but piqued, as a result of the cinematic experience? What elements–in subject matter, theme, mood, portrayal, technical composition–prompt me to seek discussion with others? Do I find that thoughts of the film, or my visceral responses to my emotional experience of it, intrude in my waking consciousness the following day? Do I want to see/reexperience the film anytime soon?

Robert Eggers’ 2015 directorial debut of The Witch, a 92-minute genre-bending historical/horror/dark fantasy film set in seventeenth-century New England (the subtitle of the film is A New England Folk-Tale), is going to be incorporated into my Top 10 list of all-time favorite movies–right up there with Kubrick’s The Shining (which Eggers acknowledged as a conscious influence on his filmmaking process for The Witch) and The Last Unicorn. It won critical acclaim at last year’s Sundance Festival. It’s even gotten an official endorsement from the Satanic Temple! 

My Bodacious Beau™ and I saw it last night, and when (mostly fellow Pagan) Facebook friends of mine saw my movie theater check-in post, they naturally wanted a succinct review from me afterwards. “Delightfully unnerving” was my two-word answer. And yes, it felt so good to come home to so many familiars afterwards! (Too bad I don’t have a black goat…not yet, at any rate!) Continue reading

The 5th and Final Epagomenal Day: Happy Birthday, Nephthys!

What an amazingly auspicious day this is, one with extremely potent energies perfect for channeling into magico-religious rituals such as today’s Polytheist Day of Protest against Daesh, as well as for celebrating the Eve of the Egyptian New Year! And let’s not forget that it’s also Lughnasad weekend for those who celebrate the Feast of the Celtic God of the Long Arm (technically, Lughnasad commemorates the God’s Foster Mother, Tailtiu, but I digress), and thousands of miles away, hundreds of polytheists are convening in Washington State for the Many Gods West conference.

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R.I.P., My Cousin Kristina (1971-2015): Death and the Negation or Affirmation of Meaning (Or, Why I Hate Cancer)

During my four years of a self-imposed exile/major Underworld initiation on the island of Oahu (translation: a military marriage that uprooted me from everything I’d cherished in my life prior), I used to teach literature and writing at the undergraduate level…mostly to active-duty military personnel working on attaining their bachelors’ degrees between deployments. Honestly, it was a Kafkaesque arrangement–I never in a million years would have seen any of it coming. But happen, it did.

And I made the decision to teach for a variety of reasons: first, I wanted to work in a way that would actually put my advanced education to use, as well as share my immense love for literature in the English language and help people become critical thinkers and more effective communicators; second, the nature of the work was very time-consuming–my classes were five-hours-long each–and I was desperate to spend as little time alone while my then-husband was sent off to war (let’s just call it “Operation: Enduring Bullshit” because these were the Bush Years and the Orwellian motto of “Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace” was very much en vogue) because otherwise the depression and anxiety I felt in my empty Navy wife house in Pearl Harbor were just too overwhelming (I attempted suicide twice during those four years); and third, I wanted to better acclimate myself to the strange subculture of life as a military dependent in which I found myself, and I thought the best course of action would be to simultaneously “give back to the community” whilst trying to gain a better understanding of living within it–its plethora of rules, its penchant for acronyms dropped into casual conversation with dizzying speed, its organizational structure rooted in hierarchical, phallocentric thinking. Much alien. Very Kafka. Wow. Continue reading

“Framing Savage Defiance in Her Lips”: Why the Goddess Tiamat Matters Now More Than Ever

It’s been an exciting week for me as a Fellowship of Isis (FOI) priestess, one filled with personal publishing triumphs–I’ve released the Spring issue of IsisSeshat magazine, the official publication of the worldwide FOI available to the Pagan public, adhering to the Earth Day launch I scheduled for myself (email me if you’d like to buy the hard copy or PDF of it; see my Gravatar profile for my email address) and official interfaith representation at the civic level. On Tuesday the 21st, I attended a faith-based women’s leaders “Salon for Solutions” hosted by the Chicago Foundation for Women (CFW), a prominent nonprofit organization whose mission is to improve the lives of Chicago’s women and girls through a tripartite platform of freedom from domestic violence, enhancing access to affordable healthcare, and fostering economic security.

CFW celebrates its 30th anniversary this September with a Symposium featuring Jane Fonda as its keynote speaker, and at that time CFW will launch a Civic Plan to Mayor Emanuel’s administration outlining its call to action for elevating Chicago’s women and girls. As part of formulating its Civic Plan, CFW reached out to several female faith-based leaders and social activists representing a diverse array of religious traditions and groups in this city. This past Tuesday, CFW hosted an afternoon “Salon for Solutions” at their downtown Chicago office; I’m happy to report that the Chicago chapter of the Fellowship of Isis was one of the groups invited, and my friend and current leader of FOI Chicago’s Lyceum of Alexandria, Demetria Nanos, and I attended. We were joined by my friend Rev. Angie Buchanan, the Director of Earth Traditions, as the “Pagan contingent” of the Salon for Solutions.

Also in attendance were Ms. Itedal Shalabi, the Executive Director of the Arab-American Family Services League, who discussed her campaign to raise awareness of domestic violence in Chicago’s Muslim community; the Rev. Nichelle Guidry-Jones, Associate Pastor to Young Adults at Trinity United Church of Christ; Wendy Witt, Associate Pastor at First United Methodist Church, who fought hard to get political leaders in Springfield to implement Marriage Equality; Ms. Lola Wright, the Executive Director of Bodhi Spiritual Center, a spiritual (not religious) organization whose mission is to “awaken individuals to live their inherent power and purpose”; and two social services case managers from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago (who asked me not to name them).

A diverse chorus of voices, indeed! And folks, it was mighty sensible–and prescient–of the two CFW Salon organizers and discussion leaders to announce at the outset that, even though we were all united in wanting to improve the lives of women and girls–and by extension, all people in all of our communities–in the city at large as well as foster the spiritual development of the women in our respective groups, mosques, temples, and congregations, by no means do we have to agree with each other. Respectful disagreement was anticipated and of course it happened, pretty much as soon as I opened my mouth to introduce myself as a Pagan provocateur. I said the reason why I welcomed the chance to add my perspectives to the data CFW was gathering in preparation of launching its Civic Plan was because it’s my holy mission in this lifetime to address the collective soul sickness wrought by the twin moral bankruptcies of scientific materialism, which, since the era of Descartes, has taught us to view Nature as an inert commodity (or series of commodities) worth exploiting, and Abrahamic religious dogmatism, which has bequeathed us in the Western world with a legacy of rampant misogyny and phallocentric transcendentalism in the quest to eradicate the memory of the Divine Feminine from mass consciousness, thereby denigrating all life on the planet in the process–to effect, in other words, nothing short of spiritual matricide.

I paraphrased my favorite quote from the late author Merlin Stone, whose book When God Was a Woman largely informed my coming to ecofeminist consciousness as a late adolescent: “Take away women’s rites, and you invariably take away women’s rights,” I all but hissed at the eyes fixated on me from around the large conference table.

I felt my blood boil.

I felt my bitten-down-to-the-nerves fingernails transform into sharp dragon claws.

I felt Tiamat standing behind me, Her hot breath streaming from Her strange snout, curling the hairs on the nape of my neck because I could fully anticipate the keening that was to come, with wings outspread and claws fiercely waving. Tiamat, Mother of Monsters. Tiamat the Enraged. Tiamat, Who, in the Enuma Elish, one of the Creation Stories from ancient Mesopotamia, emitted great cries while “framing savage defiance in Her lips” (Tablet IV, line 72) because She objected to having first Her husband, Apsu, and then Her children, slaughtered by the hosts of the Sky-God Anu.

“Savage defiance” forms my ethos as a priestess. “Savage defiance” is what must be donned as armor in the battle against the myriad overwhelming ecological and social injustices of our time. Continue reading

The Implications of Today’s Astronomical Triple-Header: New Moon, Solar Eclipse, and Spring Equinox

My mother told me that she had the chance to talk to several of our relatives in the former Yugoslavia, Germany, and the island of Malta this morning (Chicago time). They’d all seen/experienced the total solar eclipse–their reactions?

“Terrifying,” Mama reported.

I understood such a response. On Tuesday, May 10, 1993, as I was preparing to leave my apartment to take my end-of-sophomore-year undergraduate Women’s Studies final exam at North Park University in Chicago, I experienced the eerie energies of a total solar eclipse around two in the afternoon. I decided to head out into my backyard and view the phenomenon, clutching a pair of welding glasses I’d borrowed from my father. As soon as I crossed the threshold between the back porch stairs and the door leading to the walkway in the yard, a full-throttle panic attack gripped me. I clutched at the center of my chest; the feeling of oppression was sudden and horrific. My heart rate: ridiculously elevated. And whereas earlier in the day I’d heard a full chorus of neighborhood birds singing away, the landscape–fences, phone wires, tree tops–was completely devoid of stirring wildlife. No sound whatsoever. My panic intensified; I’d broken into a clammy sweat. Now I see, my 19-year-old self thought. I can totally see why our ancient ancestors marked this astronomical phenomenon with utter dread. This is an Extinguishing, a Great Devouring. It seemed to me as though the time-space vacuum was somehow being sucked into itself, and that the very walkway I began to tread was going to crumble apart, leaving me with no choice but to tumble headlong into the Void from which all the Worlds were spun. The earth would swallow me whole. Continue reading