Over several years I have worked with a poem at this time of year which has very evocative imagery. I have worked with it in a cultural context (rituals for and with the community), and in planting but it can also be used for more inner, meditative work. It is by a woman named Hilary Kidman.
When the seed calls out
Underneath, Under earth,
There is a fire in the dark
That will rise into form,
The seeds are alive,
In the night of the soil.
Toil into green,
And burn a path,
'Til the stem is out,
Like a flame through the earth.
Wishing you and yours warmth of hearth and the sparks of inspiration, at this, a most inspiring (yet cold) time of year.
Guide To Irish Spirituality: Sli an Dhraoi
By Lora O Brien
(Wolfpack Publishers, 2012)
some time before A Practical Guide to
Irish Spirituality came out, I followed Lora’s progress and heard several
times how this title is not the fabled second book. Though perhaps not the
planned sequel to her previous title Irish
Witchcraft From an Irish Witch, at 245 pages (written over a span of only
three months!) this is an impressive tome in its own right.
book has already been out a while, but due to the experiential nature of this
book it is pretty much impossible to ‘just read it’. I am writing this review
without considering myself finished with this book. I have read it, considered
it, and even done some of the more easily manageable exercises, but this is a
book of starting points through exercises and pathworkings that could easily
take a solid year or more to get through (and still feel like theres more to do).
off we are struck by the workbook nature of this book. Already journaling and
introspective practice are encouraged in the introduction with a series of
questions including the readers expectations in undertaking such a process. O
Brien does not mince her words, and makes clear the user (reader seems
inadequate for such a format of book) will only get out as much as they put in.
style of writing is very informal, more informal than one would otherwise encounter
in a nonfiction book(or at least in the ones I read), but this element of
familiarity and narrative has a special charm, though at times it leans towards
reading highly caffeinated, for example in the end of the introduction:
The stage is
set, the structure is in place. And so we begin this part of our journey
together. Hand in hand almost, we step onto this path, you and I. Are we ready?
I feel ready. And scared, did I mention the scared? Not to worry, we’re doing
the work we’re supposed to be doing; we’re ready to put in the effort, and we
CAN do this. Deep breaths… and we’re off.
content gives for an energetic sense of anticipation, and I have to admit,
though I am not used to reading material written in this style, I often found
myself smiling at the ‘wee chat’ quirkiness of it all.
core of the book is quite structured into the threefold definition of cosmology
found in the Tain – land, sea and sky.
the realm of land we are given resources and questions around Ancestry,
including a sane way of beginning to look into ancestry (though some of the
indications given are for people exploring Irish ancestry, the basic method is
good for people of all ethnic backgrounds), as well as the tangible
relationship the Irish have with the dead, and the customs that exist around
death, both contemporary and ancient. Though I am familiar with Lora as a ‘pagan’
author (boxes and labels are so troublesome), one thing I found very useful
about this book is its fluid relationship to all aspects of Irish culture and
spirituality, with the ancient and the Pagan, and the more recent Catholic
traditions standing side by side. These are presented as a continuum. Practical
indications are also given for honouring the ancestors.
is followed by a chapter on working with sacred sites, which gives a lot of
indications. I have to say I was reading this section half asleep, so I came to
a ‘list of things to do at a sacred site’ and I was horrified (and surprised) only
to reach a section directly afterwards that declared that yes, she was being
completely sarcastic. Again, this is an unusual literary tool, but an effective
one and I let out a sigh of relief. And yet many of the practices described are
very common desecrations of important archaeological sites. OK, on we go.
is followed by a chapter on rhythms and cycles. This included indications on
the ancient festivals including the fire festivals and solar festivals. I
really enjoyed the sections on the solar festivals because of the details of
the solar alignment of sights for these festivals. Ritual marking of the
festivals is recommended with a very broad form, but no ritual words or actions
specifically. The reader is encouraged throughout the book to be innovative,
and to enable this O Brien gives just enough help, but not too much as to make
the reader reliant on her authority.
next section, in the realm of sea, continues with a threefold of chapters on
the Sidhe (the so called fairy folk), deities or Gods, and the Otherworld, and
journeys or Imramma to the Otherworld. A lot of resources are given, as well as
anecdote, and a series of projects for deepening knowledge, You certainly won’t
find ‘this Gods name means this, has to do with this, his colour is this’. The
work of specific experience is given firmly into the hands of the reader.
final realm of sky or air also has three chapters, being Magical Craft,
Literature and Priesthood and Community. Magical Craft gives an excellent
overview of magical belief and practice in Ireland. Literature touches on the
major sources materials of Irish mythology, as well as sections on poetry, Breton
law around trees and ogham. The final chapter deals in a way with life cycles,
dealing with the big events of life and how we mark them in the context of
community. Out of this the question of priesthood arises – on one hand the
personal spiritual authority to mark events, but also to carry this role in a
community. O Brien emphasises the context of a community as central to any
spiritual work where any title of priesthood is used, and that taking on such a
mantle carries responsibility to the community.
She goes on to speak about coming of age, gender questions, and the
transition of death.
through all of these chapters like a golden thread are a series of
pathworkings, or inner journeys through images that allow for an inner
experience of the subject being explored. In many ways these are a kind of
meditation, giving both form, yet also freedom. I personally enjoyed these
pathworkings and felt they form an important balance to the outer work of
questions, journaling and research.
general, looking back after reading the book, and after doing some of the
exercises, I was pleasantly amused that many of the questions I have posed to
myself on my path of Irish spirituality, I encountered again in this
book. O Brien rightly says there is no set path, as everyone follows the road
that they want to. Still, this book is a condensed version of a much more
crooked and distracted road I took over many years (and I still haven’t reached
the mythological end).
have read many of the things written here over many books, and have learned
some of these things out of hard experience, and yet I do not recommend this
book primarily as an informative read, or as interesting anecdotes and narrative. I
honestly believe that this book, if used, has the possibility to open you to new
questions, or perhaps to old questions that have gone unspoken. Ultimately it
is a book about you, your journey and your unfolding self. I recommend this
book as a good foundation for a very personal spirituality rooted in this
Here in windy Kilkenny we had our Candlemas celebration yesterday evening with 40 odd of us (though its hard to keep count). I'm afraid I don't have any pictures as after moving all my stuff around recently I cant find my camera. If I manage to source some Candlemas pictures from someone else I will put them up.
The day started early enough as I gathered old candles to melt down into molten wax for earth candles. This is symbolicaly very nice for continuity (and a great way to use old nubs of candles). Earth candles are candles formed and burned in the earth. Candle wax is melted in a double burner (ie a saucepan of boiling water with a bowl or tin inside with wax). Lengths of wick are easily bought in craft suppliers, though thick cotton string (untreated) can be used in a bind. The wicks are primed or dipped into the wax once, then allowed to dry. Priming the wick eliminates air and allows for good burning. This is especially important for earth candles as it can rain outside, and if the wick hasn't been primed, and if it becomes wet, it will be very difficult (or impossible) to light.
Earth candles are formed by creating a hole in the ground several inches deep. It is best if this is in the form of a cone pointed downwards, as the tapered shape creates a natural centre for the wick. This hole can be made with a hand shovel or a fence post (ie the round ones with an existing taper - all the easier if you have a post driver, but if not, then a sledge hammer will suffice. The diameter is up to you but be aware of how much wax you have and how many candles you will make so you don't run out. Suspend the wick in the ground and tie it to a small branch at the top of the hole so it hangs in the centre.
Pour in the molten wax, but do not fill level to the ground as leaving the wax a little deeper in the ground makes the flame less vulnerable to the wind.
We created a space with five earth candles, at the four cardinal points, and at the centre of the space. Around the central candle a small trench was dug in a double loop (cross like) and inlaid with first coal and barbecue charcoal, and then lengths of braided cotton soaked in accelerant. My friend who constructed this part of the space previously worked as a fire fighter so has an intimate knowledge of fire (and like many fire fighters, secretly loves playing with fire). Several small Christmas tree candles were added in small holes in the ground to form the arms of the cross out to the cardinal points.
After spending the morning doing this, I then made soup for the feast/ meal and prepared some of the celebration.
We started to meet around 5.30pm. We organized people into the four cardinal points based on the elemental attribute of their astrological sign (ie mutable, cardinal and fixed water at one point). We sand a few Candlemas songs, the best known being a musical setting of the following verse:
If Candlemas be fair and bright, Winter has another flight. If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, Winter will not come again. The weather divination of Candlemas is also found in the German Pennsylvanian community (USA) as Groundhog Day on the 2nd of February.
We also sang several others. We then lit the cardinal points speaking a verse for each quarter, each containing an elemental reference. There was also a verse containing all four elements which was spoken together. Earlier in January we had looked at the four elements and formed a kind of 'Western medicine wheel'.
The verse we used mother earth, father son, sister rain and brother wind as personifying the elements. This has resonances with my thelemic work and Crowleys correspondences of the Tetragramaton. It is written by a woman named Eileen Hutchins.
Take our seed
And give it birth
Gleam and glow,
Until the roots
Begin to grow
Shed thy tears
To swell the grain.
Breathe and blow
Then the blade
Green will grow
Earth and Sun,
Wind and rain
Turn to gold
The living grain.
The central candle and the fire sculpture were then lit while I spoke about the two most popular image of Brigid. On one hand there is the legend around Brigids cloak and the obvious sovereignty over the land as a mother of the earth. The other is the forming of the Brigids cross as a sun wheel. Between sun and earth Candlmas stands. The sun and the skies quicken as the cross begins to dynamically spin. The earth quickens under the soil as the first seeds begin to stir, and as daffodils begin to rise. We accompany this process through the person of Brigid as mother of the earth, and keeper of the sacred flame.
Continuing our elemental theme we learned the song Earth is my body (which is used in Reclaiming) with bodywork and actions. On such a cold evening it was good to move a bit.
Earth is my body,
Water is my blood
Air is my Breath
And Fire My Spirit
To finish we ended with the words of Fiona Mcleod (aka William Sharp) again set to music and in a few voices to finish our gathering. This also has an elemental theme.
Deep peace of the running wave to you
Deep peace of the flowing air to you
Deep peace of the shining stars to you
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
So ended a beautiful gathering, and we went back inside for fodder. I hope you have enjoyed hearing about my candlemas/ Imbolg and I wish you prosperity and healing, force and fire, inspiration and poetry in the coming time...
I grew up in Co. Kildare so Brigid is someone I am very conscious of. I
will not try to say I have always felt drawn to Brigid, or any of the other
usual resonating experiences often described of ‘relating’ to a deity. But
through the cult of Brigid I had my first sense of the Paganism, just below the
surface of Catholicism in Ireland.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the official St. Brigids well
outside Kildare town. Here there is a holy well, and a (not particularly
Christian) statue of Brigid. It was here, as a child, I first saw a rag tree,
covered in strips of clothing representing wishes for health, or other forms of
petition as money, rosary beads, pieces of paper with petitions (spells in
essence) and other very personal and moving offerings including items from
This form of Catholicism, involved in petitioning saints, lighting
candles, leaving offerings, and a general magickal outlook is prevalent in
Ireland, on one hand in a certain generation of Catholics, and becomes stronger
outside the pale (the area around Dublin). These magickal/ petitioning practices
are also a strong and vibrant part of Pavee (Irish Traveller) culture,
something which infinitely fascinates me in a time and culture of modernism and
abandonment of folk culture. These practices in turn have deep roots in folk
traditions dating back centuries, some even over a millennium. I am always
sceptical of any claims of historical continuity in religious practice, but I
have come to recognise that there is a wellspring, an origin point, and
continuing and evolving expressions of the living waters.
I even remember in my school days making Brigids crosses from reeds in
school, fire wheels, solar wheels which are such thoroughly Pagan symbols. Like
I said, just below the surface of Irish Catholicism, Paganism is alive and
There is more than one Brigids well in Kildare, and by all accounts the popularized well is not the original Brigids well, but as a place of living
tradition the grotto and Brigids well currently in used is a sanctified site,
made special by its conscious use. It is a place of peace and power that shows
me new and wonderful expressions of an Irish spiritual stream.
I will celebrate my festival of warmth, light and candles tomorrow for Candlemas. Perhaps
you will get an update on what we have done for Candlemas (we’ll see). Until
next time, I wish you all a good festival of St. Brigid. May Brigid burn in
your heart of hearts. May she bring new stirrings, inspiration, healing and warmth.
I often walk into the occult shops in Dublin and either George (The Witches Attic) or Oein (Dervish) tell me about a new shipment of 'hermetic' books. Yes, I'm afraid I have gotten a reputation as a ritual magician, a dusty book loving abstraction that has no interest in all that 'Pagan stuff'.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is I have chosen, yet again, to live in what I affectionately refer to as the 'arse of the world'. Kilometeres from the nearest town, I live a life that is deeply nature based, agricultural and practical.
I know from experience stupid things I never thought I'd want to know, like feeding cows raspberry leaves makes them more docile for milking. I am very aware of how wet a summer we've had, because the raspberries only came last month and the new potatoes are blighted from all the rain.
Today I marked Michaelmas, or harvest home. This is essentially the equivalent of the celebration of the autumnal equinox for many pagans (though I am one of those pedantic people who can't stand people calling it 'Mabon'), but based on an agricultural rather than astronomical marking point.
On the continent the harvest festival and the equinox are more aptly placed together, but I find in general the celebration of events 3 days later (St. Johns, Christmas) in Christiandom an interesting thing, as there is no longer a threshold experience, but an experience of the new astronomical constellation.
Agriculturally this has been a difficult year. Many things didn't come in with all the rain, and many things arrived late. When everyone else was celebrating the autumn on the 21st the leaves were still green, the food still ripening, and I had to wonder, are pagans really nature based, or do they work with abstract astrological happenings? The element of harvest is important on a tribe level, and in a time when I am privileged to experience nature in all its complexity, there are also many for whom all food and milk comes from Tescos. My experience of harvest is always later than the astronomical equinox, and even this year the dying of nature and the reddening and browning of leaves is much later now than last year.
In old Ireland Michaelmas was one of the quarter days, which was also the time rent and employment contracts were made or renewed. It was a time of the beginning of a new period or experience of the year. At this time Michaelmas wasn't fixed to the 29th and actually fell in early October (even more apt in a year like this).
The work on the land with crops, with herbs (both cultivated and wildcrafted) and with the animals is a special window to the subtle differences between the equinox as a heavenly experience and the harvest as a end point to the majority of the work on the land in the light side of the year. In my sitting room there is a harvest altar (with an image of Michael of course).
All of this produce has come from the land and was harvested today. I am thankful for what we have got, in spite of the bad year. We also put up an altar in the barn, which we used for our celebrations. This is the last time we will use this space properly before the cows come in so it is an apt place to mark this turning point.
For the record, I also marked the equinox (as a good 'hermeticist') but I increasingly feel these two elements, the cosmic and the earthly are different and aren't mutually syncronistic. Next year I think I will again mark both an equinox and a harvest as very different things, because the land and the cosmos don't always tick by the same clock. Happy harvest all!
An Understanding of the Receptacle in the Western Mystery Tradition
Quest is at the heart of what I do-the holy grail, and the terror that you'll never find it, seemed a perfect metaphor for life.
Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law
It is a sad fact that the basic weapons or tools used in the manifold branches of the western mystery tradition are often reduced to an elemental attribution (fire, water etc.) and a gender identification (male/female; active/passive). I cannot help but feel that much is lost when these attributions are divorced from a long and interesting 'biography' of the tools of magick and would like to make some steps towards rectifying this perceived shortfall.
It is always difficult to find a starting point for such a broad subject. I would like first to turn to a source concerned with the modern tradition of the cup as passive and water. For this we turn to Wiccan author Scott Cunningham who in his book Wicca: A Guide For The Solitary Practitioner wrote:
The cup is simply a cauldron on a stem. It symbolises the Goddess and fertility, and is related to the element of water. Though it can be used to hold water (which is often present on the altar), it may also contain the ritual beverage imbibed during the rite. The cup can be made of nearly any substance: silver, brass, gold, earthenware, soapstone, alabaster, crystal, and other materials.
As the cup is described as 'a cauldron on a stem' we must also look towards his indications on the symbology and use of the cauldron.
The cauldron is the Witch's tool par excellence. It is an ancient vessel of cooking and brew making, steeped in magical tradition and mystery. The cauldron is the container in which magical transformations occur; the sacred grail, the holy spring, the sea of primeval creation. The Wicca see the cauldron as a symbol of the Goddess, the manifested essence of femininity and fertility. It is also symbolic of the element of water, reincarnation, immortality, and inspiration. Celtic legends concerning Kerridwen's cauldron have had a strong impact on contemporary Wicca.The cauldron is often a focal point of ritual. During spring rites it is sometimes filled with fresh water and flowers; during winter a fire may be kindled within the cauldron to represent the returning heat and light of the sun (the God) from the cauldron (the Goddess). This links in with agricultural myths wherein the God is born in winter, reaches maturity in summer, and dies after the last harvest...The cauldron can be an instrument of scrying (gazing) by filling it with water and staring into its inky depths. It can also serve as a container in which to brew up those infamous Wicca brews, but bear in mind that a large fire and plenty of patience are required to make liquids boil in larger cauldrons. Most Wiccans use stoves and cooking pots today.
The question of the cauldron will be returned to later in a several fold manner. For now, i would like to look at what some others have had to say about the cup, including our dear Uncle Al.
As the Magick Wand is the Will, the Wisdom, the Word of the Magician, so is the Magick Cup his Understanding. This is the cup of which it was written: .Father, if it by Thy Will, let this cup pass from Me!. And again: .Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?. And it is also the cup in the hand of OUR LADY BABALON, and the cup of the Sacrament. This Cup is full of bitterness, and of blood, and of intoxication. The Understanding of the Magus is his link with the Invisible, on the passive side.
In the identification of the cup with 'understanding' we are brought to the third sephiroth of the life tree, Binah which is home of Babalon. What does it mean to understand as opposed to merely to know? Aleister Crowley enters into this question in great depth in his chapter on the cup in Book 4, but such a breadth of debate is beyond the central thesis of this piece. At the end of the above quote it is also worth dwelling on the statement that understanding is the link with the invisible on the passive side. This seems to me a clear indication of the power of revelation or inspiration. There are a number of identifications is this quote which are as follows:
* The cup as understanding (inspiration)
* The cup as a gift/ revelation (if it be Thy will...)
* The individualised nature of the cup
* The cup of Babalon/ rebirth
* The cup of sacrament
Each of these themes will recur in the subsequent material to a lesser or greater degree. Crowley also identifies the difference of the cup from other tools, and the polarity between the cup and the dagger or lance.
The Cup can hardly be described a a weapon. It is round like the pantacle.not straight like the wand and the dagger, Reception, not projection, is its nature. So that which is round to him is a symbol of the influence from the higher. This circle symbolizes the Infinite, as every cross or Tau represents the Finite.
If we relate the symbol of circle and point to Thelema we see that the infinite circle relates to Nuit, the infinite star Goddess. Paul Foster Case recommends the Cup be prepared in a specific way to prepare it for yet another task – skrying.
The reason the cup should be black is that it is intended to symbolize Binah, the sphere of Saturn. This is one reason, rather. Another is that black is the best color for a magic mirror or divining crystal, and the cup is sometimes used for this purpose .Because the cup corresponds to Binah, it is the particular symbol of intuition, and its use in ceremonials has always to take this into account.
Again we meet the theme of revealed knowledge through the skrying process, and a passive 'mediumship', relying on faculties that belong to the usually passive subconscious rather than the active work of ceremony.
The precursor of the cup can be found in the cauldron of Celtic traditions. We also meet many faces of the cauldron. The first of these is the cauldron of Ceridwen. In the tale of this cauldron we are told Ceridwen is preparing a brew for her son which contains the essence of all wisdom. Gwion (later Taliesin) is tending to the cauldron, stirring it when some of the brew splashes on his finger and to relieve the burning, he places his finger in his mouth. The short conclusion is that Gwion goes through a catharsis, an initiation after which he is Taliesin, the bright browed, the poet priest of the Welsh tradition. We see in the cauldron of Ceridwen the forces of inspiration and initiation (the cup as understanding).
Secondly we come to the cauldron of the Dagda. The cauldron of Dagda is called the cauldron of plenty, and supplies abundant food (the cup of sacrament/ Eucharist). This is mirrored further East in the image of the Greek Cornucopia.
The third cauldron is that of Annwen. It appears in the poem The Spoils Of Annwen when Arthur goes on a quest in the underworld. This is the cauldron of rebirth (cup of Babalon). These examples are pure, as there are many stories of the cauldron, for example the cauldron of Bran which is a cauldron of plenty, but is also a cauldron of rebirth when the dead were 'boiled' in its depths. For those further interested in this threefoldness I refer the reader to the chapter by Adam McLean Alchemical transmutation in history and symbol in At The Table of The Grail where he shows an evolving formula from the pre-Christian cauldrons, to various representations of the Holy Grail, and the alchemical vessels.
We also encounter the symbol of the cup in the tarot, most obviously in the minor arcana suit of the same name. The cups are attributed to feelings, emotions and intuition. One can chart a progression in the tarot from wands (idea/initiative), to cups (intuition), to swords (action) to pentacles (manifestation). This is a very specific attribution. One also encounters cups in the major arcana. In the Rider-Waite deck some of the cards with cups include The Magician, Temperance, and the Star features jugs.
In the Crowley- Harris deck (Thoth tarot) we meet it in the Magus, the Lovers (as a polarity of spear and grail – an expression of Heiros Gaimos), in the chariot, In Lust as the cup of Babalon, In Art (cauldron and grail) and in The Star.
Each of these can be taken in turn. In the Magus (Thoth) or the Magician (Rider-Waite) the four elemental tools are represented. These same tools are the symbols of the four suits of the minor arcana, or lesser mysteries. From this we can see a master of the material, but also through the correspondence with Mercury a trickster. The cup here holds no especially outstanding purpose beyond as a representation of the elemental tools of the lesser mysteries.
In the Lovers (Thoth) the cup is not a pure symbol, but an expression of polarity and the mystery of polarity based sex magick through lance and grail.
In the Chariot (Thoth) we see the knight carries a patten or disk which is clearly identified as a manifestation of the grail. Some exploration of the grail will later follow.
In Lust (Thoth) we see Babalon upon the beast and with an elevated 'cup' her cup. It also reminds me of a drop which brings me again to Crowleys Book 4 on the nature of the cup
There is, however, a universal solvent and harmonizer, a certain dew which is so pure that a single drop of it cast into the water of the Cup will for the time being bring all to perfection. This dew is called Love. Even as in the case of human love, the whole Universe appears perfect to the man who is under its control, so is it, and much more, with the Divine Love of which it is now spoken. For human love is an excitement, and not a stilling, of the mind; and as it is bound to the individual, only leads to greater trouble in the end. This Divine Love, on the contrary, is attached to no symbol. It abhors limitation, either in its intensity or its scope. And this is the dew of the stars of which it is spoken in the Holy Books, for NUIT the Lady of the Stars is called the .continuous one of Heaven,. And it is that Dew which bathes the body of the Adept .in a sweet-smelling perfume of sweat. Of that which is in the Cup it is also said that it is wine. This is the Cup of Intoxication. Intoxication means poisoning, and in particular refers to the poison in which arrows are dipped (Greek tÒxon, .a bow.). Think of the Vision of the Arrow in Liber 418, and look at the passages in the Holy Books which speak of the action of the spirit under the figure of a deadly poison.For to each individual thing attainment means first and foremost the destruction of the individuality.
This speaks of an ascending mystery of a spiritual union between the individual and their higher purpose or Will. At its highest level it is a mystery succinctly phrased by Goethe as “die and become”.
We meet cups again in the card Temperance (Rider-Waite) or Art (Thoth). In the Rider- Waite design we see an angel standing with one foot in a pond, the other on land. She bears a red triangle on her chest (fire symbol?) and pours liquid from one cup to another.
The pond, or pool raises questions through the attribution of the cup as having a fluid watery nature, and being feminine. With this image I think of the Chalice Well at the foot of Glastonbury Tor in England. Glastonbury is allegedly where Joseph of Aramethea brought the grail. The well cover in particular stands before my mind eye as two intersecting circles forming the visica piscis, a symbolic representation of the yoni (vagina). Wells, pools and ponds are sacred to the Goddess and form symbols of the other or spiritual world. Water as a universal solvent forms a bridge between two worlds (there is a wonderful depiction of this in the film Constantine). One could see the two cups as representing fire and water. This echoes a specific grail tradition held at Glastonbury Abbey that Joseph of Aramethea brought two recepricales or chalices, one with the blood of Christ, and one with his perspiration. Here we see the polarity of fire and water. It is obvious that Waite is being deliberately obscure in the illustration of this card as we find in the words of Mathers, founder of the Golden Dawn, this more explicit description.
It represents an Angel with the Solar emblem of Tiphereth on her brow; the wings of the Ariel and Volitising nature, pouring together the fluidic Fire and the fiery Water, thus combining and harmonising and temperate those opposing elements
quoted in Zelewski, Pat and Chris The Magical Tarot of The Golden Dawn page 156
This obscured aspect is made clear in other decks, including the BOTA deck, which is an esoteric restoration certain ideosyncricies in the Rider Waite and of course in the Crowley Harris Thoth tarot. In the Thoth tarot we see a clear alchemical symbolism, as the union of opposites. If we consider the Lovers as spear and cup, male and female, being forces of solvency (solve - breaking down to component parts), the Art card is the aspect of colagula, the union and the arising of the third principle. The attribute of Saggitarius attributed to this card places it on the path of samekh, the path leading to the experience of Tiphareth and also the name of a ritual written by Aleister Crowley to achieve Knowledge and Conversation with the Holy Guardian Angel (also an experience attributed to Tiphareth).
The final aspect of the cup I would like to look at is the Holy Grail. Some may think it irrelvant for a 'Pagan' to turn to the mythologies of Christianity, and yet within the early materials of Christianity there are echoes of old and profound mysteries.
The Holy Grail has long been held as a symbol of the achievement upon the spiritual path, and yet also the process as without the path and the learning from the path, there is not the knowledge and personal virtue needed to encounter the grail.
One can speak of the traditions and allegories of alchemy as deriving from the grail mythologies. On one hand the acquisition of the grail frees one from death and rebirth, and gives the ability to heal (the healing of the fisher king). The grail is oft referred to as a chalice, but in actuality it appears at different times in different forms. One of these forms is the stone, and the qualities attributed to the grail are synonymous with the alchemists Philosophers Stone.
The grail in fact takes on various guises, and in a single story can even change its form. We can identify 5 manifestations of the grail developing from stone to spear, on to sword, to cup and finally to dish or Paten. In the writings of Jack Courtis on The Quest For The Holy Grail he identifies this fivefold grail as aether (stone), spear (fire), sword (air), cup (water) and dish (earth).
The stone as aether identifies admirably the path of return found in alchemy, but if we go back in time to the beginning of the biography of the grail we meet the apocryphal tale of its origin in heaven. This represents a core teaching of esoteric Christianity. Before the creation there was the great battle in the heavens, between God Father and the adversarial forces under Lucifer. Lucifer had a crown, a quaint term for his army of renegade angels, which numbered some 10,000. In the battle the archangel Michael struck from this crown, this army its brightest jewel, known to us as the Grail. The grail is an angel of Lucifer, but before falling from Heaven, he also beheld the highest manifestation of the Christ as an evolutionary principle and formed of Himself a vessel for the future of humanity. We are told in the apocrypha that the grail passed through humanity, with various individuals named including Hiram Abiff, Solomon, Elijah and John. Consider this as an evolutionary stream in humanity. This can particularly be seen in Elijah who encounters God, not as some outside booming voice, but in the small voice (inside- self as God!). Elijah is a gateway to the arising of humanity to a new freedom- the first initiate of the mystery of the higher self. We also meet this later in John the Baptist, not as initiate, but as initiator, baptising in the Jordon. His mandate of 'go forth and sin no longer' can be interpreted as a removal of external moral judges. Jesus the Nazarene was one of those baptised by John, who started a ministry primarily based on the idea of love (agape). He broke Temple law, turned his back on the status quo, and was 'a light unto himself'. This quality of an ascended and free individual can be found described in the writings of the A.'.A.'., sometimes described as a Christ. The Christ or Buddha principle is oft misunderstood as a saviour, but they represent a level of attainment available to each individual and as such they are their own 'lord and saviour'.
This stream leads on to the last supper when the grail impulse culminated in the ritual of Eucharist, or God eating. This is also an alchemical process, in which, through the human body as the Alembic (an alchemical vessel for distillation/ purification), bread and wine are transmuted into the substance of the body through processes of metabolism, becoming body and blood.
The traditions around the grail and its coming to the West refer to evolutionary streams in humanity on a path of development. Of course there is work in achieving the goal, and some individuals arise, while others do not, but the Law of ascendant development, symbolised by the grail, is available for all. As such the grail does not belong to Christianity, but to humanity as a whole.
Do I buy into this story? I do not accept it as a literal truth, but believe it is an important allegory for understanding the true role or the grail. We have met this evolutionary principle described as the 'jewel' of Lucifer's crown, another representation of the 'stone' as the aether.
In his Tower Of Alchemy David Goddard describes the personal or microcosmic grail as follows:
In the microcosm, in the human being, the Grail symbolizes the Ruach, the Higher Self or immortal spirit, called, in some traditions, the holy Guardian Angel. This individuated aspect of the One Life gives rise to our sense of "I-ness," our individuality, the useful illusion of separateness. Until we gain conscious awareness of this aspect of ourselves, it also gives rise to the illusion of separateness from the All. Our spirit is the grail for the Divine Self of the Self, that which alone is truly real, truly eternal. In Qabalah, this is called the Yechidah, meaning the "unique and indivisible," and assigned to Kether....when we speak of Yechidah being at the "highest level," in Atziluth, we also mean at the most "interior" level of a human being. As Joseph Campbell, the well-known mythographer, put it, "At your deepest identity you are one with the Transcendent."
As a pagan image, the Grail is a cup of regeneration, the body of the Goddess. Combined with the symbol of the spear it is an expression of the chemical wedding, which is to say the reconciliation of opposites found in the mysteries of sex magick. These have been some of my thoughts on receptacle in the Western mystery tradition. As this is a deeply personal relationship you dear reader are encouraged to read some of the listed sources and to go on your own Grail quest.
Love is the law, love under will
Further Reading and Sources:
Case, Paul Foster Esoteric Secrets of Meditation and Magic (FLO, 2008)
Crowley, Aleister Book 4 (Weiser books)
Cunningham, Scott Wicca: A Guide For The Solitary Practitioner (Llewelyn, 1989)
Goddard, David Tower Of Alchemy (Weiser books, 1999)
Knight, Gareth Experience Of The Inner Worlds (Skylight Press 2010)
Matthews, John. The Grail: Quest for the Eternal (Crossroad, 1981)
Matthews, John (ed.). At the Table of the Grail: Magic and the Use of Imagination. (Arkana, 1987)
Zelewski, Pat and Chris The Magical Tarot of The Golden Dawn (Aeon books)