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.

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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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Baba Marta: Slavic Goddess of the Liminality of March

In South Slavic folk belief, the month of March is personified as a goddess named Baba Marta (“Old Woman March”). The erratic weather patterns typical of this month are ascribed to the goddess’ seemingly fickle nature: She likes to be an Old Winter Hag one day and a beautiful Spring Maiden the next, ushering in either snow and cold or balmy temperatures with sunshine, depending on Her mood.

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Just yesterday here in Chicago, in fact, we had a freakish snowstorm with near-zero-visibility conditions overtake the afternoon after a spell of Spring-like weather. When I spoke to my parents on the phone and we discussed the weather, we all agreed that Baba Marta was having a grand old time causing the mid-month snowstorm. My mother sang the “Baba Marta” nursery rhyme / children’s poem she remembered as a child. It was composed by the beloved Serbian poet, Jovan Jovanovich Zmaj (1833-1904; fun fact: his last name is the Serbian word for “Dragon”!). I’ll write it in transliterated Serbian first and then translate it into English:

Baba Marta, narod veli

Chas sneg, chas vedrina

Sprolechem se vrlo chesto

Usput sretne zima!

 

Baba Marta, the people say

Now blizzard, now clear sky

Springtime very often

Meets winter!

 

For many Indo-European cultures, the year began with the arrival of Spring and the main Deity presiding over the transition from the old year to the new aptly has characteristics of a liminal nature. This Being can can alter the hinges of Reality, alternating between What Was and What Is Yet to Be. The Kalends of Ancient Rome commemorate the arrival of the month of March and the new year by celebrating the Matronalia, a days-long festival honoring several goddesses (“the Mothers”), chiefly Juno as the Supreme Mother and Bona Dea but also Anna Perenna, the Goddess of Time-Keeping. The Romans honored mortal women as Their earthly counterparts. (Interestingly, in the UK Mothers’ Day takes place in March [it took place this past Sunday].)

The Slavic Baba Marta reminds me of tales I have heard from Ireland and Scotland of the Cailleach Bheara/Bheur, the ancient Goddess of the Land, Hag of Winter, Who, when She sees fit, can transform Herself into a beautiful Spring Maiden (Bride or Brigid in Scotland), often by rejuvenating Herself in a sacred body of water. Doubtlessly, these tales wove their way into Arthurian lore of the late Middle Ages with the recurring “loathly lady” characters like Dame Ragnell, women of power who can transform themselves from frightful crones to seductive young lovers when knights worthy of their help learn the valuable lesson that a woman’s greatest desire is to never have her sovereignty forfeited.

Many Slavic cultures retained the folk memory of these goddesses long after Christianity displaced Their official worship. Customs like the burning of the (female) effigies of personified Winter during the Maslenitsa festival in Russia and the Ukraine, a Carnival-like celebration that precedes the start of the Lenten season, or the March 1 exchange of “martenisti” figures on Baba Marta’s Day in Bulgaria show that the death-dealing Winter Witch and the life-affirming Goddess of New Beginnings are ever in Their peoples’ hearts.

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Bulgarian Martenisti effigy.

Slava, Baba Marta! / Glory to Baba Marta!

My Goddess Sculpture Makes Its Debut in a Chicago Art Gallery in 11 Days!

This is definitely going to be a September to remember for me, and I’m very excited that my activities are located in the intersection of Art and Spirit. My latest terra cotta sculpture, a replica of a Neolithic artifact dating from the Vinča Culture of the prehistoric Balkans (c. 8,000-5,000 B.C.E.–actually, the very figure I made a replica of was unearthed by the late archaeologist Marija Gimbutas in the 1960s in the vicinity in Serbia where my mother hails from), will be making its debut at the upcoming exhibition The Spiritual Power of Art: Myth, Religion & Mystical Experience at the Life Force Arts Center in Chicago. The opening reception for the exhibit is on Saturday, September 12; it runs through January 5, 2016.

My piece is entitled Velika Maijka, which is Serbian for “Great Mother.” Isn’t She cute?

She's more than clay to me...

She’s more than clay to me…

She’s currently adorning my household shrine to my female ancestral spirits. I’ll be bringing Her to the gallery on my birthday, September 8, as I’ll be helping out to install the artwork for the upcoming exhibit with other volunteers.

This is the second sculpture of mine to be making its public debut. As with the first (also a goddess statue, incidentally), Velika Maijka won’t be for sale. I feel that, energetically, it’s important for pieces like this to have a dialogue with the public at large. As a newly appointed Artist in Residence at the Life Force Arts Center, I’ll be working in the year to come on bringing art-centric Pagan and polytheist rituals to life for anyone and everyone to enjoy and to help raise their vibrational levels while honoring specific Powers. I’ll be devising a ritual in particular that has Velika Maijka as its focal point, so stay tuned for details!

Thank you, Jupiter in my Sun Sign, for expanding my creative horizons! Thank you, Ancestors of mine from the Land of the South Slavs, for instilling me with your wisdom and the call to safeguard our Mothers, the sanctity of soil, and the fragile blue planet we’re inhabiting! Živeli--To Life!

The Date of Mitrovdan (November 8) and Serbian Lore Regarding the First Day of Winter and the “Master of Wolves”

Koleda (winter festival) spirit wolves. Masks made by artist Leon Uršič; photo courtesy of Primož Hieng

Koleda (winter festival) spirit wolves. Masks made by artist Leon Uršič; photo courtesy of Primož Hieng

“Know your history, know yourself. No history? Then you have no self to speak of.” –What my mother Milanka said to me over her coffee this morning as she and my dad began to regale me with Mitrovdan anecdotes

The ancient Serbs, like the ancient Celts, used to recognize two seasons: summer and winter, which, after Christianization, were marked by the fixed dates of the Feasts of Saint George (May 6) and Saint Demetrios (November 8), respectively. As a modern Pagan, it’s easy for me to see the parallels with the Great Sabbats of Beltane and Samhain in Celtic tradition, for those Days of Power did herald the beginnings of summer and winter. The parallel between the Feast of St. Demetrios–known as Mitrovdan in Serbian–and the Celtic Samhain is delineated even more clearly when one considers that in the Old Julian Calendar, Mitrovdan was commemorated on October 26. Continue reading

March 19, 2008: On the Fifth Anniversary of the Illegal and Immoral Occupation of Iraq

By way of editorial commentary: As the great Yogi Berra once quipped, “It’s deja vu all over again.” As the drum beats for war in the Middle East once again reverberate loudly to catch the attention of the American Sheeple, I thought of this poem I wrote on the date of the 5-year anniversary of the Iraq War, which should have been called “Operation Enduring Bullshit” (I’m all about truth in advertising). This process is so formulaic, surely I can’t be the only person seeing the template of (a) a democratically elected president, once he’s fallen out of usefulness/favor with the U.S., gets demonized as a “dictator” (e.g., Hussein, Mubarak, Gaddafi, and now al-Assad); (b) the U.S. covertly funds destabilizing agents, first praised by the media as stalwart “rebels” against an oppressive “regime” (think “Star Wars,” folks) to depose said “dictator”; (c) the “rebels” armed and trained by the U.S. turn out to be terrorists; (d) “blowback” on a major scale erupts; (e) a series of highly publicized atrocities elicit commentary from the POTUS on inevitable military action; (e) the shareholders of Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, et al, applaud fervently. To quote the late, great Kurt Vonnegut, “So it goes.”

Well, as a Pagan priestess who loves to wear her critical thinking cap and remind people, even through her bumper stickers, that “YOU CAN’T KILL FOR PEACE,” I want to offer my poem “On the Fifth Anniversary of the Illegal and Immoral Occupation of Iraq” in the hopes of blockading the march to war. Salaam.

March 19, 2008

I’m having a Sylvia Plath evening

of arduous domesticity, where poetry

leers between loads of laundry,

bidding me to take up the pen

while Tide Pure Essentials with Baking Soda™

valiantly tries to scrub the menstrual blood

from my newly stained underwear

I’m not the only creature bleeding in the world today

Is blood spilt in the desert easier to sweep away? Continue reading